Cross the Stars by David Drake

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"He led those who trusted him into Hell," noted the dispassionate mind of Elysium. "He decided for them, so that some died and some went mad without any knowledge of what they were being sent into."

"He led them," responded the other current. "He decided for men who had chosen him to decide. When it came to a clear choice, he was willing to sacrifice himself for those he led."

"I thought it was simple enough," Slade said to the Elysians facing him. "We'd disembark at the first world we hit, Terzia it was going to be. Now that we knew, I knew, I've got to admit—what sailing with the Alayans meant. And the tenders brought everybody down to the surface of the planet without argument.

"But the trouble started when I formed everybody up between the tenders and the Citadel to hear the new plans . . ."

* * *

"This might be worth it for booze and women, muttered Bourgiby as he mopped sweat from his neck, "but so far I've seen damn none of them around."

The landed castaways were watched over by native males whose powerguns were certainly not of native manufacture. The guards were not overtly threatening, but neither were they friendly. No one could say for sure whether the locals spoke any human dialect.

Slade stepped forward so that the men he had formed in double ranks could see him. The guards were watching closely. They did not interfere. Neither did the trio of Alayans who had come down in the tenders with their human cargo. "Ten-shun!" the tanker roared. He hoped that past habit would silence and focus the group on him, though few of them would have been from outfits noted for obedience to their officers.

"Excuse me," said a voice. "You will be allowed to speak, but first I have an announcement to make for the Terzia."

Slade turned. His mouth had been open already to unload grim truths on the castaways. The speaker was surprising enough that it was a moment before the big man remembered to reply.

The Spanglish phrasing had been human-standard, so far as there was such a standard, but the speaker was a male Terzian, an autochthone. He was a little stockier than most of his fellows; and his skin, while swarthy, lacked the olive tinge underlying the others'.

Besides his human trousers, the autochthone wore a commo helmet with a directional amplifier. Even if Slade had wanted to contest the local's right to speak, human lungs would have been hopelessly outclassed. The amp boomed out, "The Terzia, who rules this world absolutely, offers greetings and condolences to you who have been landed here. She offers honest employment to all who care to remain. Our exports here on Terzia are minerals and forest products. There are collector's positions open in both fields. A man who applies himself will be able to save the price of passage off-planet within a year."

The groan from the mercenaries needed no amplification to be heard.

Rooks broke from the ragged line. "Hey, what is this?" he called as much to his fellows as to Slade. "I thought the deal was—" he turned toward the trio of Alayans who were waiting near the human ranks—"we had passage as far as we wanted to go. And this sure as bleeding hell isn't where I want to go!"

The Alayan's vocalizer had a volume setting that permitted it to thunder over the chorus of support for Rooks. "That is correct, sir," boomed the machine voice. "You are welcome to travel with us as far as you choose." There was a brief pause. "Our eighth landfall following this one will be Desmo."

The tone of the pandemonium changed. There were cheers and a number of whistles. The ranks had already dissolved. Now there was a movement toward the Alayans. Men were demanding details of time and circumstances from the coolly-erect aliens.

Desmo was headquarters for a score of relatively small mercenary units. The planet acted also as a recruiting center for several of the larger ones. The world was by no means loosely gripped by the Military Tribunate which ran it. Still, Desmo's entertainment was varied and was geared toward the needs of young men in a dangerous line of work.

It struck Slade that he had never seen more than three Alayans at a time. Part of the tanker's mind held that thought and wrestled with it, while the reflexive part of him roared, "Hold up, curse you! If you get on that ship, it'll drive you nuts!"

Not all the assembly could hear the words, but Slade's bellow gave up less than the aliens might have hoped to their machinery.

"Yeah, that's what I said," the tanker went on grimly. He had their attention again. Slade stood arms akimbo, angry at the men for being fooled and angry at the way the Alayans and the Terzian authorities had combined to that end. "Their ship moves by snapping people right out of their skulls. Just like Stoudemeyer. That something you want to see happen to you?"

The mercenaries seethed like the water of a stone-lashed pool. The sun hammered them in this jungle-lapped clearing. Their skins were pale from the voyage and near-confinement on Rusata. Neither the Alayans nor the ground authorities had as yet provided protective gear. The series of assaults by the sun and various figures of power left the men enervated and afraid.

In the bright sun and the confusion, it was hard to tell how much the Alayans had been talking among themselves. Now the vocalizer of the central alien called, "Mister Slade?"

The loud question split the mercenaries between those looking at the Alayan and those looking at Slade himself. "Are you speculating?" the Alayan continued in the brief hush. "Or do you mean the voyage has affected your own mind?"

"You know what I've been through!" the tanker shouted. "I won't have you doing that to these others, do you hear me?"

Somebody in the crowd laughed. Slade took two strides toward the sound. He caught himself as mercenaries scattered or even braced themselves, secured by the armed guards.

"Listen, you people!" Slade said. The grip he kept on his temper showed in the tremble of his voice. "I've led you the best I know how—"

He was interrupted by the amplified voice of the Terzian official. "For those of you who will be transients on our world," the autochthone was saying, "follow me to the free entertainment center in which you may stay while cargo is being transferred to and from your vessel."

There were females on Terzia after all. An even dozen of them issued from a door in the tall spire which seemed the only building in the region.

Over the bellows of enthusiasm, the autochthone continued. "Those of you who intend to stay, fall in at those trucks." He pointed toward a pair of scabrous-looking stake-bed vehicles. "They will carry you immediately to the labor barracks."

The Terzian turned. The rush of the human audience to follow him was so immediate that the men forced their way past Slade in their haste.

The tanker bunched his shoulders momentarily. Then he simply got out of the way. The females had slipped into the building again. The male autochthone led the surviving mercenaries toward the same entrance as if they were the children of Hamelin—or the rats. At the very door, one man paused and looked back. Snipes, the Admin Officer. Then he sneered at Slade and disappeared with the others. The portal clicked shut behind him.

Slade closed his eyes. His lips pursed and flattened in a sort of exercise to work the feeling back into them. It was not anger that weighed on him, but the crushing sense of failure. The sun felt good, like the clean sun of Tethys burning away fatigue on a gravel strand. After a minute's stillness, Slade opened his eyes and stepped toward the empty trucks.

"Where will you go now, Mister Slade?" asked the voice behind him.

The big man turned. The Alayan was alone. His limbs held no weapon, only the vocalizer on which his tendrils expertly worked. The Alayan's six tiny heads goggled without human expression.

"I'm going to the labor barracks, I suppose," said Slade. "I thought about some other things I might do—" he looked up and down the spindly alien, wondering again whether the chitin would have cut as the exoskeleton splintered in Slade's grip—"but I need to get home. They tell me."

The alien mimed a human nod with his central pair of heads. "You can travel with us, you know," the vocalizer said.

Slade smiled. "I might," he said. "Would you use me for the fuel instead of the men? Now that we know it doesn't bother me?"

"You know we cannot," said the flat voice. "You are functional, Mister Slade—obviously functional. But our need is for reality, not function. We will get you to your homeworld at least as quickly as any other system of freighter connections is likely to do."

"Figured," said Slade. "Well, I'm not going to watch that, my friend."

He turned and stared up the glistening flank of the spire behind them. "You kept your bargain, and you didn't lie. Can't blame you for not wanting to lose your fuel supply, and I can't blame the folks here for discouraging immigrants." He shrugged. "Our sort of immigrants. But I'll work my passage out in a mine or any curst place before I watch you burn up my men!"

The Alayan nodded again. "I understand, Mister Slade," he said through his vocalizer.

Despite the emotions wracking him, Slade was quite convinced that the alien did understand.

"But please remember," the Alayan continued, "that—men—are lost during any long voyage. Because of our precautions, no one has been shot while gambling or been driven mad by adulterated stimulants. Most of your men will disembark on Desmo, Mister Slade, in better health than they will have a year later."

"What'll you do then?" Slade said harshly. "Send yourselves to Hell? Or rot for want of fuel?"

The Alayan's faces danced with a radiance only hinted in the sunlight. "We transport intelligent life forms among the stars faster and more cheaply than any rival," the vocalizer said. "We never lie about the terms, though we do not emphasize them either. We will find a cargo on Desmo, Mister Slade. And we will find fuel."

The Alayan walked back toward one of the tenders. He moved with the fragile dignity of an aged man. Lord preserve those men who would sail again with the creatures . . . but Don Slade had done all that he could himself.

Do you have to feel you have failed because outlaws won't take your word that a situation is dangerous? Cop!

A door snicked open at the base of the tower. Slade could not be certain whether it was the one through which his men had entered or a different one. The Citadel was huge. Its smooth surface and relatively small diameter to height tended to conceal its real bulk, however.

A woman stepped toward Slade. She was flanked by two guards. The guards were male autochthones, but the woman had to be human: the first human Slade had seen on this planet, besides the men with whom he had landed.

The woman was beautiful, beyond any questions of need or abstinence. The dress she wore was rich and clinging, and her dark, honey hair fell across her shoulders beneath a fillet of green crystal. A part of the tanker's mind was surprised that the woman's beauty and importance were not riding in a vehicle, even for the hundred meters or so which separated her from Slade. In fact, she did not even wear shoes. Her toes flexed liquidly against the sward as she walked.

"Dear Lord have mercy!" the tanker muttered. He had been seventeen the last time he felt as he did now.

"Captain Donald Slade?" the woman called. Her voice had the alto clarity of birdsong at evening.

"I once was that, yes," Slade said. He was suddenly aware of how sweat-stiffened and prickly were the clothes he wore. "You represent the Terzia? I'm here to sign on as a miner, I guess."

"I think we can do better than that, Captain," said the woman. She was close enough to extend a hand to grip Slade's warmly. She smiled. "I am the Terzia."

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