Part 1 of 2
Copyright © 1990
Dedicated to the memory
of David Hartwell
and his neckties
The merchantman jabbed at the marauder with a spear of light—but the smaller ship leaped aside, almost seeming to disappear and reappear. The huge Terran vessel jabbed again, this time with its rear cannon, but the tiny marauder danced away, mocking them.
“By all that’s holy!” the navigator swore. “Only a quarter our size, and we can’t hit them! What’s the matter, Captain? Don’t your boys know how to aim?”
“I was top gunner at Target, Lieutenant,” the first officer snapped back. “But these aren’t exactly state-of-the-art lasers—and I only have two of them. Damn that mosquito!” He jammed the heel of his hand on the firing patch.
On the screen, light blossomed where the smaller ship had been a half second before.
“This is a liner and freighter, Lieutenant,” the captain said heavily. “We only carry minimal armament—not like that Navy ship you pushed until you signed on with us.”
“If I’d known...” the navigator muttered—but he broke off, because the Khalian destroyer was suddenly much larger in the screen, and swelling.
“He’s inside my guns!” the first officer yelled. “I can’t lock onto him, he’s too close! How the hell...?”
A grinding crash jolted the whole ship. The captain was the first to recover enough to pull his webbing loose, crying, “Pass out small arms to every able-bodied passenger, and fight for your lives! That ship just grappled us! They’re going to be cutting through and boarding, any second!”
The crew scrambled to their feet, broke open the gun locker, and headed out into the passenger compartment, arms full of weapons.
They were barely into the cabin before a section of wall blew in. Passengers screamed as sinuous Weasel shapes materialized out of the cloud of smoke, ruby beams stabbing out at the crew.
The navigator howled and went down with a hole through his chest, exactly circular and neatly cauterized. The navigator and captain dodged aside, dropping the extra weapons and snapping shots at the invaders. One speared a Khalian through the shoulder; the creature screamed but caught the gun with its other hand and fired. The captain leaped back toward the bridge, and the Khalian’s beam scorched the wall. But the first was firing, enough to make a Weasel duck before he shot back. The beam reflected off the officer’s insignia and cut a furrow through a passenger’s arm, setting her sleeve ablaze. She screamed, and her husband shouted, batting out the flame. Then a slug thrower cracked, and a hole appeared in the wall right near the captain’s head. He returned the fire, and a Weasel shrieked—but so did the passengers as they felt the wind of atmosphere swooping toward the hole in the ship’s side and the vacuum beyond. Then the slug thrower cracked again, and the first dropped, blood spreading out from his shoulder.
But a large, bulky shape rose up behind the pirates, a civilian in a business ensemble, drawing out an old-fashioned blackjack and clubbing at a Khalian. He connected, and the Khalian tumbled just as it squeezed off a beam at the captain, a beam that scribbled across the hull and went out just before it reached another screaming passenger. The captain’s own beam speared the largest Khalian, sending up smoke from leather armor, but the Khalian howled and shot back, and the captain tumbled, his gun falling loose.
The big civilian swung at the armored Khalian.
Another Weasel swung his arm up, deflecting the blackjack with a yell, and the big Khalian swung around in time to see the sap swinging toward him again. He screamed and ducked down, hurtling forward, and knocked into the big human, jolting him back into the aisle and shredding his jacket with sharp claws. The human started to lift the blackjack again, but five needle-sharp talons poised over his face, and the Khalian shrilled, “The course of wisdom is to relinquish your weapon.”
The Terran dropped the blackjack, as much from astonishment as from fear, and the Khalian erupted into the squealing hiccups that served as the laughter of his race. “Yes, you are startled to see that I speak such excellent Terran, are you not? But then, warrior-in-disguise, I was a translator in our Khalian Intelligence during the war. And you? Surely the only one of these monkeys who dared fight must have been a warrior once. What is your name, what was your rank?”
“Sales,” the Terran ground out. “Lohengrin Sales. Lieutenant Commander.”
“Ah, yes! The quaint custom of your kind—to give name and rank only! But was there not something more? A number? Yes, you Terrans are numbers as much as names, are you not?” And the Weasel gave his shrill, piping giggle again.
“And you?” the Terran grunted. “Your name?”
The talons danced dangerously. “Be wary, Sales. I honor you for having fought, but not so highly as to give you the power of my name. You are vanquished, after all.”
“No.” Sales spat. “We conquered Khalia.”
The claws darted down, but halted a fraction of an inch from Sales’s eyes. He kept his face carefully immobile—and was shocked to see that the Khalian was doing the same. The Weasel had exercised self-control!
“You did not conquer,” the Weasel hissed. “Some few of my more tenderhearted countrymen were infuriated to discover that we had been deceived by our supposed allies of your kind, the Syndicate, and in their anger allied with you.” The talons danced again. “Is that not so?”
Sales ignored the glittering points. “If you know that, why have you attacked us? We are not of the Syndicate! We are your allies!”
“No, not mine,” the Khalian hissed. “Alliance with an enemy? Never! I, at least, would not accept such dishonor! See what comes of it—monkeys like these around us, thinking that Khalians did surrender! No, never will I be party to so disastrous an alliance! I will die fighting you, if I can, as I should have before the truce! And all of my crew wish to do so, too. But we will take as many of you as we can, first! We will slay you all, any of your race! We will punish all humans—the Fleet, and its Terran sheep—for killing Khalians.”
“It is wrong,” Sales gritted. “Deaths in war should not be avenged during peacetime.”
“Peace has not come for me! The war has never ended! Rightly or wrongly, the only safety for Khalians is punishing those who kill Khalians! And we will slay those of the Syndicate, for exploiting us—suborning and then betraying us. We will bring you all down to death, or dishonor.”
“Your own people have commanded all Khalians to lay down their arms! If you do not do so, you will be an outlaw.”
“An outlaw,” the Weasel agreed, “never to see my ancestral hold again, never to feel the soil of Khalia beneath my feet, never to scent its sweet breezes!” The talons danced, and one drew a line of pain down Sales’s cheek. “You are unwise to remind me of this!”
Sales ignored the pain, and the alarm that fed it. “The ways of wisdom do not always accord with the ways of honor.”
“Honor, yes. Honor demands signs of victory.” The Khalian’s gaze darted down to Sales’s chest, and his snout split with a grimace that was a Khalian smile. His other hand moved at Sales’s throat, and the Terran tensed, but the Khalian laughed. “Softly, Sales, softly! What is a strip of cloth, after all, against a life?”
Everything, Sales knew—to a Khalian. Any sort of trophy taken from one of them was dishonor. But he was a human, so he lay frozen as the Khalian whipped the brightly colored band from around his neck. “Is it not pretty?” the Weasel cried, then whistled the same phrase in his own language—and his crew laughed with him.
They sounded like a psychotic calliope, Sales thought. He knew what the big Khalian had said to his men, because he knew Khalian as well as the Weasel knew Terran.
The leader draped the tie around his own neck and bent it into a clumsy knot. “There! See, I too am a Terran businessman! This is my trophy! Do each of you also take one!”
With whistles of agreement, the Khalians turned to tear at the civilians’ neckties. With cries of dismay, the men untied their decorations quickly.
“Thus shall you know me, if ever we meet again,” the big Khalian told Sales.
The Terran smiled, without mirth. “Shall I? Or shall we all burn, when you are done looting this ship?”
“Oh, we shall take the whole ship for our loot! But you have a launch, have you not? A ‘lifeboat,’ that is your term for it. Yes, we shall set you adrift in that, those of you who are not foolish enough to fight, and not skilled enough to die fighting.”
The Khalian showed his teeth in a grin. “Be glad, Sales. Your clumsiness has saved your life. No, I will let all of you go, alive, to carry word back to your fellow Terrans of me and my crew—that they may know not to dare ply the space about Khalia again, lest we fall upon them!”
“Indeed,” said Sales, with the closest he could come to scorn. “And how shall we tell them of you, when we do not know your name—you who are so good of heart as to let us live?”
His sarcasm was lost on the Khalian. “Good of heart? Why, that will be a most excellent name! Yes, tell them I am Goodheart, and that they shall know me by these brightly colored strips of cloth my crew and I shall wear! Tell them of Goodheart, that they may tremble in fear!”
“Goodheart,” Sales agreed, with a sour smile. “Goodheart, the pirate.”
“Goodheart!” the Khalian shrilled to his crew in his own language. “Do you hear? He has given me my name, the name which shall make Terrans tremble! From this time forth, I am Captain Goodheart!”
The crew’s approval was a chorus of whistles that fairly drilled through the Terrans’ brains.
The launch was jammed full, and the Khalians were none too gentle about pushing the passengers aboard. The women screamed in fright, and some of the men, too. Then Captain Goodheart snapped, “Stand clear!” and two of his Weasels stepped in, brandishing rifles. The crowd screamed and pressed back away from them, jamming up against one another.
Then, while the two crewmen held them back with their rifles, two others brought in an improvised stretcher with the captain’s unconscious form on it. They went out, then returned with the first officer, again unconscious. Lastly, they brought in the draped body of the dead navigator. They stepped out, and the passengers were silent, awed. Then the two guards backed away, and Sales stepped in.
He turned to face the big Khalian in the hatchway. “I thank you for your courtesy to my fallen countrymen.”
“I honor them,” the pirate answered. “They fought, willingly if not well.” Then his lips writhed back in a grin. “Remember me, Sales—and remember my kindness.”
He hit the pressure patch, and the hatch swung closed. “Oh, don’t worry,” Sales murmured. “I’ll remember you, all right.”
“You damn fool!” a passenger cried. “You damn near got us all killed back there!”
The crowd, given a scapegoat, suddenly turned into a mob, all shouting blame and accusation at Sales.
He whirled about and, in his best quarterdeck voice, bellowed, “Grab hold!”
Cries of incredulity answered him, but some of the civilians had been in the Fleet, and grabbed for the nearest seat-back or rack, yelling to others to do the same. Sales himself just barely managed to grab hold of a tie-ring before a giant kicked their ship like a football, and it shot out into space.
People screamed, and the ones who had ignored Sales slammed down against one another, then ran stumbling backward to be plastered against the aft bulkhead. Sales felt sorry for the ones on the bottom of the pile, but he knew someone had to direct this launch, or they’d be off course before they even began.
Assuming, of course, that the Weasels weren’t planning to use them for target practice.
He didn’t think they were, Sales thought, as he struggled fore through the press of bodies. The Weasels wouldn’t have wasted a good ship that way. Goodheart had already shown that he cared a lot about public opinion; he wasn’t about to shoot down helpless refugees.
He elbowed the last passenger aside, ignoring his angry shout, and pulled himself into the cockpit. Just then, the acceleration eased off, and he almost fell against the forward port, but caught himself in time, pushed himself back into the pilot’s chair, and pulled the shock webbing across his body almost by reflex. Then he reached out and turned on the board. Lights winked across its surface, and the big screen next to the port glowed into life. Sales slapped at patches, activating the sensors, but not the beacon.
The merchantman was already moving. Goodheart wasn’t wasting time—he was getting out, before Sales could call for help.
Passengers jammed the hatch behind him, and a man called out, “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing!”
“Calling for help,” Sales answered. But he kept his eyes glued to the screen as he turned on the log recorder, watching and noting coordinates until the merchantman suddenly blurred and winked out, into hyperspace. Then, finally, Sales reached out and turned on the beacon.
He turned around and said to the men jamming the opening, “Tell everyone to find seats, if they can, and see if there’s a doctor or a nurse to keep an eye on the captain and the first.”
One of the men turned away to carry the message, but another glared in outrage. “Who the hell put you in charge?”
“Yeah!” said the other man. “Who do you think you are, anyway?”
“Lohengrin Sales,” he answered. “Lieutenant Commander, Fleet Intelligence.”
“Sit down, Commander,” the admiral said, not looking up from his desk screen. Sales relaxed a little and took the straight chair in front of the desk. The walls were almost invisible in the murk left by the single pool of light on the admiral’s desk. The glow of the screen was brighter, though, and lit the man’s face from below, giving him a supernatural look. Good, Sales thought. It takes something supernatural to fight demons.
The admiral looked up. “You acquitted yourself admirably, Commander. It’s just lucky for those civilians that you happened to be on a mission to Terran HQ.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“But why did you have nothing but a blackjack, may I ask?”
“Spaceport security, sir. Civilians aren’t allowed to carry weapons aboard, and blackjacks don’t show up on screens—if they don’t have any metal parts.”
The admiral nodded. “We’ve sent your courier pack on to Terra with another messenger. It was lucky those pirates didn’t think to search you—diplomatic documents with Khalian seals would never have gotten past them.”
“They would have used them for kindling, sir. Now that that mission’s out of my hands, may I request reassignment?”
The admiral smiled. “To what, Commander?”
“To pirate extermination, sir,” Sales answered.
The admiral nodded. “Good idea. I was just about to assign you to track down Captain Goodheart, as it happens. And, by the way, you’re promoted—to full commander.”
* * *
There was discussion among the crew about the captain’s taking of a Terran name, of course.
“I could understand his giving the humans a name to call him by,” said Pralit, one of the CPOs, “but abandoning his family name, his clan name? How can this be good?”
“There is a way,” Xlitspee, a crewman, assured, if somewhat desperately. “There must be—for our captain is the bravest of we orphans of Khalia.”
“What did you say?” Houpiel snapped.
“That the captain is the bravest,” Xlitspee answered, frowning.
“No—you said we are ‘orphans of Khalia’!”
They were silent, letting the implications of the term sink in.
“If that is so,” said Pralit, “perhaps his taking of a new name is fitting.”
“Even if it is only a human name, translated to the Khalian tongue?”
“Of course.” Pralit managed a grin. “We understand the meaning of it, in all its sarcasm.”
“Not that there is not something of truth in it,” Houpiel temporized, “though more of irony.”
“Far more of irony,” Xlitspee said, suiting his tone to the word.
They looked up as Saulpeen, the first officer, came in. “What says he?” asked the second. The officers had so far been silent.
“That we, too, should take new names,” Saulpeen answered. “More, he wishes you each to take a name that is an aspect of his.”
The wardroom filled with shrill cries of consternation.
“Be still!” the second cried. “You have seen sense in his change of name; hear his sense in changing ours!”
“Why,” said Saulpeen, “the sense is that your names will show your allegiance to him—as will be needed, if your clan names are forgot.”
“Forgot,” Saulpeen said, his tone hardening, “for the captain means to gather in your fellow exiles—all they who are Khalia’s new orphans—and he does not wish that age-old clan feuds should arise to divide we outcasts, who need each other most.”
The wardroom was quiet as the crew looked at one another, then looked away. They were all men of one clan, and the thought of alliance with enemies was detestable—but Khalian enemies were better than human.
“And,” said the second, finishing the train of thought, “if there are no clan names, there can be no clan feuds. It is very wise, Saulpeen.”
“Very,” the first agreed, “but from this time forth, I am Saulpeen no longer. I shall henceforth be Throb.”
They were silent, letting the impact sink in.
Then the second nodded and said, “I shall be Tender.”
And, slowly at first, then in a rush, they began to choose names.
* * *
It wasn’t just a matter of manning a ship and going out to track down the pirate, of course. Sales had to earn that ship, by figuring out where Captain Goodheart would appear next. He set up a computer scan, having every shipping report routed through his office, and set a program to search for key words, such as “raid,” “lifeboat,” and “necktie.”
Reports began to come in, of a Khalian pirate who outgunned and outmaneuvered a merchantman, then matched orbits, clung to the ship’s side with magnetic grapples, and blew a hole through the ship’s skin. Then Weasels boarded—and the biggest one always wore a loud, garish necktie. He was unfailingly polite while his crew killed off the pilot and navigator, then stuffed the passengers into a lifeboat.
Soon, Captain Goodheart was notorious for his lightning strikes, his ruthlessness, and his neckties.
* * *
The ship shuddered, the section of hull fell inward, and the half-dozen men and women of the crew started firing. But Weasel faces ducked out, snapping off shots, and the crew fell. A large Khalian bounded in, and the women shrieked. The men struggled to their feet, pale and determined to die well....
The Khalians swarmed all over them, and they were down and out cold in an instant.
“My husband!” a woman screamed, but the large Khalian said, in surprisingly good Terran and with amazing politeness, “I doubt not your husband is well, madame, though unconscious—unless he is a much better fighter than I expect. My crew does not kill civilians.”
“Your crew?” the woman gasped. “But—who are you?”
“You may call me Captain Goodheart—for, see, I leave you your lives. But only your lives.” The big Khalian held out a clawed hand. “Your jewelry is forfeit. Give it to me, please.”
With trembling hands, the woman unfastened her necklace and placed it into his hairy paw, then added her bracelet. Behind, the Khalians rose, taking the men’s wallets and watches with them. All but one still breathed; most were unwounded.
Two women screamed at the sight of the others, and fell weeping over their bodies.
“The safe,” Goodheart said to First Mate Throb, and the first turned away, with a whistle of assent.
The last of the women was surrendering her jewelry to the Khalians. Then half the crewmen fell to untying the men’s neckties.
“But...” the first woman swallowed, plucked up her nerve, and asked again, “why are they taking our husbands’ neckties?”
“Their neckties?” Captain Goodheart touched the garish strip of cloth around his own neck. “As mementoes, madame. Surely you would not begrudge us souvenirs?”
* * *
“And even our neckties!” the civilian shouted, purple with rage. “What kind of Navy do you think you’re running, if these Khalians can just pop up wherever they want and play pirate with us?”
“Neckties?” The naval officer seemed suddenly more intent on the civilian’s report of the piracy. “Just yours? Or everybody’s?”
“All our neckties, dammit!” the civilian shouted. “What am I paying my taxes for, anyway?”
But Commander Sales only nodded as he stood and said, “Thank you for your information, Mr. Bagger. You’ve been a great help.” He started to turn away, then stopped at a thought and turned back. “By the way—what were you coming to Khalia for, anyway?”
“Why, to buy some of that bargain real estate the Khalia are selling, of course! And set up a department store! There are fortunes to be made there, man!”
As Commander Sales turned away, he was almost ashamed to admit that he could understand at least part of what drove Captain Goodheart.
Sales set up a holotank with Khalia’s sun represented by a glowing ruby at the center, then plotted the pirate’s ambushes in yellow dots, connecting them with traceries of faint yellow lines. Slowly, the pattern grew. Goodheart seemed to be everywhere and nowhere, in a sphere about three AUs out from Khalia. That was the point at which ships had to drop out of hyperspace into normal space, because they were getting too close to the gravity well of Khalia’s sun—and sometimes Goodheart was there to meet them, and sometimes he wasn’t. It didn’t seem to matter which side of Khalia’s sun they dropped out on—Goodheart ambushed ships from every direction.
Sales couldn’t patrol every inch of a sphere that size, of course—but he could outfit a cruiser and wait in ambush near the breakout point from Target, that being the most frequent traffic from and to Khalia. A cruiser that was nonmetallic, and black, and far enough away so that it wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye—but close enough so it could rendezvous with any inbound ship within fifteen minutes.
All he needed was permission.
“Sorry, Sales. We can’t risk you in combat now. You’re the only one who knows that Weasel, his mania, his patterns of raiding.”
“I’ve left complete notes, sir,” Sales said. “The locations of his raids, the times, the pattern—everything’s there, in the computer.”
The admiral just sat, frowning at him. Sales could almost hear him weighing the greater chances of eliminating the pirate, against the chance of losing the only man who had any feel for how Goodheart thought. Sales held his breath.
The admiral decided, and nodded. “All right, Sales. You can have him.”
Sales’s heart was still soaring as he stretched his shock webbing across himself and leaned back, waiting for takeoff. To be in command of a ship again was wonderful enough—but to be in command of a ship that was chasing Captain Goodheart was sublime.
The ship waited near the breakout point, its black hull virtually invisible in the eternal night of space. It waited for a week and, during that time, watched a ship a day break out into normal space and shoot onward toward Khalia. It waited for two weeks, and the crew began to grumble. They were getting tired of backgammon and calisthenics. They wanted action—or shore leave.
Finally, after three weeks, the alarm beeped, and the sensor op called, “Khalian on scope.”
“Commander Sales to the bridge,” the captain snapped into the intercom. “All crew, combat stations!”
The klaxon hooted, and the ship filled with the thunder of pounding feet.
Sales burst into the control room and stilled, staring at the image on the telescope screen. Infrared-sensed and computer-enhanced, the silhouette of a Khalian cruiser seemed to float in space.
“We’ve got him!” Sales hissed. “Full acceleration, Captain!”
“Full acceleration,” the captain told his engineer. The alarm wailed, and reflex sent Sales into his acceleration couch. He was stretching the webbing as the boost hit and two gravities’ worth of acceleration slammed him back into the cushions.
A point of light shimmered on the screen, a new star.
“Widen coverage!” the captain snapped, but the sensor op was already increasing the field.
A new ship appeared on the screen, hurtling toward the Khalian—but it was ten times the size, and the silhouette was Terran.
“There’s what he’s after!” Sales snapped. “A freighter!”
“Torpedo,” the captain directed. There was no feeling of recoil, but after a second, a gunner called, “Away.”
“He’ll move before it gets there,” Sales warned, but the captain was already nodding. “We’ll launch as soon as we can tell vector and velocity.”
Then, suddenly, the Khalian jumped—but away from the freighter. It flipped over, bow facing toward Sales. Fire burst, and the torpedo exploded well away from the ship.
“He knows we’re here,” Sales grated. “Any more legs on this ship?”
“Range!” The gunner didn’t even finish the word before the captain was bawling, “Fire!”
It was fast, then—the head gunner keyed the computer for full fire, and the helms op keyed his for evasive action. The ship slammed them from side to side and back and forth, jumping about in its progress toward the Khalian—but the fire computer read each change in vector as soon as the helm computer generated it, and compensated in its aim. The ship’s full armament blazed, picking off the Khalian’s torpedoes and evading its lasers, while it probed and stabbed with its own cannon and missiles.
The Khalian, of course, had done the same, and its image jittered about the screen, its cannon blazing at the Terran, evading and returning fire.
Computer against computer, the pirate strove against the Fleet vessel—while, beyond them and all but unknowing, the freighter sped silently past and on toward Khalia.
But Sales had an advantage that the Khalian didn’t—a dozen PT ships, spawned at the sound of the klaxon and arcing high above the plane of the ecliptic. Now they fell, stabbing fire, guided by computers independent of the fire-control brain.
The Khalian rolled and jumped, trying to evade this new menace. Then an explosion lit it amidships. The screens darkened to compensate for the extra light, so Sales could only see a dim picture of the Khalian turning tail.
“Got him!” the captain shouted, clenching his fist. “Go get him, Helm!”
“Chasing, sir,” the helm op gloated, and the warning hooted just before the ship jumped into two G’s acceleration again.
On the screen, the pirate shrank as it sped away.
“He might be sucking us in,” Sales reminded.
“We’re watching,” the captain answered.
The pirate began to grow in the screen again.
“We’ll catch him,” the captain gloated. “We’ll blast him out of the night!”
Suddenly the pirate began to glitter.
“He’s jumping!” the sensor op yelled.
“He can’t!” Sales shouted. “He’s wounded! He could blow himself into oblivion!”
“If he stays, we’ll do it to him for sure,” the captain grated.
The glitter covered the ship completely, faded to a twinkle, and was gone. The screen was empty.
“Got away!” Sales slammed his fist against the arm of his couch. “He got away from us!”
“Maybe not!” The captain’s voice was leaden. “He was too close to another mass—us—and too close to a standard breakout point, where the curvature of space is kinked. Could be he’s blown himself to hell.”
“Not this weasel.” Sales glared at the screen. “Could be, but it’s not. He may be hurt, but he’s alive.”
He lay back in his couch, forcing himself to relax. “You fought damn well, Captain, and you gave him one hell of a chase. I couldn’t have asked for better.”
“Thank you, sir—but I could.” The captain’s face was grim. “We lost him—so it wasn’t good enough. The crew did a fine job—but there must be something we could have done better.”
“I can’t think what.” Sales suddenly felt very tired.
“You will, though, sir. You will.”
* * *
“We must know who commanded that ship, Throb! It was no chance encounter; he was waiting for us!” Goodheart paced the chamber, vibrant with anger.
“We must, indeed,” Throb agreed.
“We must have knowledge! Information! We must set spies to tell us of the slightest sign that some Terran seeks us out!”
Throb frowned. “But how can we know what the humans think, Captain? We cannot have agents among them.”
“Can we not?” Goodheart wheeled about, eyes glowing. “Have we no Khalians who dwell among humankind? Are there none on Target, none on Khalia, who would favor us?”
Throb stared, struck by the notion. “There must be many!”
“Make planetfall secretly!” Goodheart commanded. “Set each of our men to talk to old friends! Let them sound out those who are loyal to Khalia, not to the clan chiefs! Those few who are, give them transmitters and codes! Let them pass each word they hear that might have meaning back to us!”
“At once, my captain!” Throb sped away, leaving Goodheart to plan alone.
He paced the chamber, reviewing possibilities. Language—he must teach all his crew the human languages, those of the Fleet and the Syndicate, and set them to scanning the humans’ broadcasts. He must begin to collect news printouts from every vessel he boarded—he had chanced upon a copy of a shipping schedule on the last Syndicate ship he had taken. He needed knowledge.
Old friends talked to old friends, and they talked to new friends. No one could say who had asked whom, but half the Khalians on the home planet soon knew to which old friend they should mention anything interesting. Petty, perhaps irrelevant...
Or perhaps not.
“Commander Lohengrin Sales?” Goodheart stared at the picture on the screen, recorded from a newsfeed and transmitted to his ship, secretly. He frowned at the human face. “Why does that name itch at the corner of my brain?”
All the crew were silent, watching their captain out of the corners of their eyes.
But Goodheart scarcely saw them; he was concentrating on memory, reviewing all that had happened since he had decided to turn pirate....
“Sales!” he cried. “The civilian who fought us, when we first captured a Terran ship! Have they set him to chasing me, then?”
“We shamed him, Captain,” murmured Throb. “He lusts for revenge.”
“Even as I do—now!” Goodheart bared his fangs in a grin. “Would he chase me, then? Well, let us seek more information about him, and more—for I will chase him!”
For some reason, the prospect filled Throb with foreboding.
And perhaps he was right—for, alone in his cabin, Goodheart paced the deck, claws emerging and retracting, simmering with anger and frustration—because he realized that, more than anything else, he needed human agents.
How could he recruit even one trustworthy human, when all were so loyal to their race—or so treacherous that they were willing to sell anything for their own wealth, even honor? He didn’t know—but he would find a way. “I must have a human!” he breathed. “I must!”
* * *
The other kids never liked Georgie Desrick when he was growing up. Long in the torso and short in the legs, he was never much of an athlete—and whether his clumsiness was inborn, or only the result of the other kids never wanting him on their teams, it was nonetheless extreme. Add to that a face with a receding chin, buck teeth, and huge, bulging eyes (from the distortion of the thick contact lenses he had to wear), and you had a person who didn’t exactly gather friends. Nonetheless, he was very religious, so he managed to put aside all thoughts of revenge and filled his time with books.
Storybooks, “How To” books, encyclopedias, dictionaries—he soaked up everything he could read. By fifth grade, he was already reading high school physics and chemistry; by seventh grade, he was soaking up cybernetics and electronics. Those clumsy hands managed to acquire a modicum of skill with a soldering iron and a chemistry set, and his mind developed compartments for listening to the teacher separately from working on his latest math problem. School lessons would have bored him stiff, if he’d actually had to pay attention to them—after all, they were several years behind his reading—so he became adept at tracking the classroom lectures, able to snap to full consciousness at the mention of his name, and answer the question that had just been asked, while the back of his mind went on planning his next electronic invention.
He got straight A’s, of course. Which made him even less popular.
By the time he graduated from high school, he had several patents to his name and a very good income from royalties—so a high-pressure Navy recruiter talked him into going into the Fleet, promising that he could attend the best colleges on old Earth at government expense for as long as he wanted—provided that, when he graduated, he would work on some problems the government wanted investigated.
And, the recruiter pledged, he’d have companionship.
The companionship turned out to mean that he was quartered with other officer candidates, that they all had to sleep in the same room and eat at the same table. It didn’t mean they had to talk with him.
So they didn’t—they talked past him, over him, and by him; and when they did look at him, their faces held anything but friendship. They were fine-looking, sociable, athletic young men, all of them, and they resented him fiercely.
Georgie threw himself into his studies more fervently than ever.
His roommates took it as snobbish aloofness and disliked him even more.
Georgie graduated in three years—with a doctorate in physics. He stayed another year, to pick up master’s degrees in chemistry and metallurgy. He was starting work on his third dissertation when the Navy told him it was time to collect.
But they had to take him to the planet where the problem lay, so he was signed on as supercargo aboard an FTL training cruiser.
Within a week, the crew resented him for not having to get his hands dirty.
A new midshipman, trying to build a personal power base, chose Georgie as the obvious scapegoat and unified the rest of the middies by building up a huge grudge against the oddball who just stayed in his cabin and read.
Rough hands woke him in the middle of the night, jabbing a gag in his mouth and shackling his hands and feet. Young men, snarling obscenities, rushed him through the darkness and locked him inside a space-going coffin labeled a lifeboat. A mule kicked him in the seat, and he blacked out.
They were caught, of course—but their midshipman leader managed to put it down to a sophomoric prank that had gone too far. The officers let the rest of the crew off with severe discipline, but the leader was cashiered. He turned his back on the Navy and started trying to figure out how to manipulate those around him into making him rich.
Georgie woke in the dark, with no light but the faint instruments on the control panel. He yanked the gag from his mouth, found the water bottle in the emergency rations—not easy, with handcuffs—took a couple of gulps, and remembered that he was marooned. He forced himself to cap the bottle and studied the control panel.
His heart sank.
When the middies had kicked him out of the ship, the lifeboat had dropped back into normal space. It was thirty light-years from the nearest sun.
He started the beacon, but with almost no hope. He started a strict rationing program, so his air regenerator gave out before his food and water did, two weeks after he’d been drifting alone in the darkness.
The loneliness, he was used to. His religious faith sustained him, until the end.
But, as the excess carbon dioxide muffled his thoughts and he began the slide down into unconsciousness, the despair he couldn’t quite contain opened the channel through which all the resentment, bitterness, and years of repressed anger tore loose into a river of hatred—hatred against all things human, who had been too snobbish to befriend him, had sneered at him all his life, and who could not, when last came to last, even leave him alone. The religious part of him cried in dismay, but finally had to admit that burning, tearing hatred that boiled up in a lust for revenge against all of humanity.
A shrilling pierced Georgie’s ears. He winced and forced his eyes open. He was astounded to realize he was still alive.
He was even more astounded to realize he was staring up into the face of a Khalian.
The snout split in a grin—Georgie was flabbergasted; he hadn’t known the creatures could smile—and a furry paw came up to pat his cheek. Then, even more incredibly, the Khalian spoke—in Terran. “Do not be afraid. We have rescued you from your lifeboat—and only just in time, too. Minutes longer, and you would have been dead. You are safe now, and among friends.”
Georgie could only stare.
Then sleep claimed him again.
When he woke a second time, the Khalian in attendance looked up, saw him, and shrilled something into a grille on the wall. Georgie was just trying to struggle up to a sitting position when the Khalian he’d seen before came in and pushed him gently back. “Please, not yet. Give your body time to recover.”
Georgie sank back, realizing that the Khalian was much bigger than most of his kind, and wondering why he was wearing a bright, gaudy necktie. “But—why would you save me? I’m... not even your kind....”
Captain Goodheart grinned, all the more widely because that was the same question Throb had posed. “We cannot but admire the valor with which you strove to survive in that lifeboat, when all must have seemed hopeless. We Khalians understand valor. How long were you adrift? A week? Two?”
“Two,” Georgie agreed.
“And how did you come to be there? Shipwreck? Accident?”
“Exile.” Georgie’s jaw firmed. “My own kind threw me out.”
“Ahhhh.” Captain Goodheart lifted his head. “Then we are alike, you and we.”
Georgie frowned and asked, “How can that be?”
Goodheart began to explain.
* * *
“But, Captain! How can a human choose a Khalian name?”
“In the same fashion that you and I have, Throb. And for much the same reason—he renounces his kind. He says that we are his kind, now.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
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