Cross the Stars by David Drake



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CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE


The steel door of the food-processing plant was not only unlocked but ajar. "Hello the house!" Slade called as he swung the door fully open. He waited outside for a further moment. The air car had already disappeared into the eastern sky. The sea sounded a dense background, loud without being obtrusive. The gasp of the pumps within the long, concrete building was by contrast relatively mild.

"Hello there," Slade called again as he stepped inside. He closed the door behind him.

There was a door to the right which would lead to living quarters for the crew during their month-long tours. Beside it was a bright alcove glassed off from the rest of the pump room, the foreman's office. The multiple vision blocks within flashed their images to one another with no human to watch them. Tubing and crates moving beneath the tubing on conveyors covered the long, left-hand wall. There was a slideway leading from the office to the bright splotch which was the open, seaward end of the building.

As Slade watched, a blur grew against the brightness. It accelerated toward him. When the blur slowed to a brutally-sudden stop, it took on shape: a slide bucket holding a hard-looking man in faded Slade coveralls. The rocket gun he rested on his right thigh happened to be aimed squarely at the intruder's chest.

"And just what might your business be, buddy?" the man asked Slade. He was not young, but his voice quivered as little as did the gun he held.

"My name's, Don Holt," Slade said with only a moment's hesitation to remember it. "I was hoping you might have some work for me." The fact that the foreman was leaving the office empty to check the lines implied the crew was short, but Slade would have said the same thing in any case.

The man in Slade livery snorted. "I'm the foreman, my name's Pretorius," he said. "And I guess that means you're looking for a meal. Well, I guess we can find you that, sure." He swung his legs out of the bucket and stepped toward Slade. His weapon was now aimed at the roof.

The tanker frowned. "Guess I could use some food, sure," he said. "But I haven't forgot how to catch that for myself, either. I said, I'm looking for work."

"Are you?" said Pretorius without inflexion. "You'd be from around here, then?"

"Been a while, though," said Slade in elliptical agreement. "When I was a kid, I thought all mercenaries got rich. I spent the past twenty years proving I was wrong and a curst fool." He smiled in near humor, then touched his left earlobe. It was a half centimeter shorter than the right one which had not been fried by a powergun.

Pretorius dipped his gun momentarily, like the neck of a bird bending to drink. He arrested the motion before it was an actual threat, but there was no particular warmth in his voice as he said, "Is that a fact? Then I'd think you'd have found work at the Port, boyo. And just maybe you did, hey? And they sent you here to see what you could learn."

"Could be I got an offer," Slade said. "Could be I didn't like the color of suit they were going to have me wear, too. Look, if I'm unwelcome here, I'll just walk on out. My daddy ran a catcher boat from South Three until a knife-jaw got him. I guess I can find some kin down that way if a strong back don't interest you." He turned away from Pretorius and the gun.

"Blazes, man," the foreman called. "Don't leave me short-handed as I am."

Slade looked back at the foreman. Pretorius was holding out his weapon by the balance. "Here," the older man went on. "You know how to use one of these?"

Slade frowned. "Guess I can learn," he said.

Powerguns would have been useless against the sub-surface life forms that were the bane of processing plants. Instead the crews used short-barreled rocket guns like this one. They fired low-velocity missiles which were unaffected by the media through which they lanced toward their targets. The bursting charge was much bulkier than a powergun wafer liberating comparable energy; but the charges went off in their targets, not on the surface of the sea.

"Come on, then," the foreman said. He pointed to the second slide-bucket. "We've got a ten-meter wriggler giving fits on section two. Isn't big enough to take a nip out of the line, but it keeps tripping the alarm. Come on—you want to learn, I'll teach you."



And what have we got here?" asked the leader of the men who strolled toward Danny Pritchard as the air car took off again.

Pritchard looked them up and down with a lack of expression which was itself significant. All but one of the four men wore belt knives. The leader instead toyed with a nunchaku, a pair of short flails chained together at the slim ends. None of them wore guns, which had been for decades proscribed on the Council Islands of Tethys save for certain jobs and locations. That scarcely made Danny safe at this moment.

The men were among those who had been lounging against the shading wall of the courtyard when Pritchard arrived. There were a score of others in various liveries present, but no one seemed to pay any attention to what was going on. The leader of the men moving in on the visitor wore Slade Blue defaced with a crimson stripe down either leg. The other three were Dyson retainers in full scarlet.

"Friend of the family," Danny Pritchard called cheerfully. He sidled away from his luggage so that it did not block him if he had to jump back suddenly. Hidden at the small of the ex-soldier's back was a glass-barreled powergun. He would use it if he had to—but the illegal weapon's single charge would still leave three opponents. "I'm here to visit the Widow Slade, at her request. You're of the House?"

The man with the nunchaku flipped his weapon out toward Pritchard's trunk. The lid clacked as the further baton touched it. "Can't have any contraband coming in here," the man said. "Think we'll check it right here."

"What the hell's going on here?" demanded a voice shrill with tension.

Men who had been covertly watching as the visitor was baited now glanced up in open surprise. The four men who had approached Pritchard now fanned away as if Hammer's man could be safely ignored if they were willing to leave him alone. Not the smartest possible assumption; but they were not pros, only bullies, and not the cleverest bullies Danny Pritchard had met in his career either.

The man who had shouted from the House doorway was young and thin. Pritchard had seen a cube of Marilee—as she was—Dorcas. The youth's features were a near double for those of the woman twenty years before.

It was an open question how Teddy had expected to stop the trouble if his righteous indignation were not enough. The fat old man a step behind him and to the right had a notion of his own, however. The old man's gun-hand was hidden within his loose-fitting jacket.

"Checking for contraband, Master Teddy," said the man with the nunchaku. The weapon twitched in his hand like the tail of a cat which lay otherwise motionless.

"Durotige," said the old man behind Edward Slade, "get your butt out of here. Out of the yard. Now."

"You don't scare me, Blegan!" snarled Durotige.

"Good," said the old man, oblivious to his presumptive master. "Because you'll try something if I don't scare you, Durotige."

"Time'll come, old man," said Durotige. His words were bluster, however—as Blegan's had not been. The man in crimson over blue spun on his heel and marched toward the gate. Its hinges were rusty but they squealed open when Durotige tugged with the fear of death behind him. The trio who had supported him drifted away as well, though they pointedly did not walk toward the gate.

Edward Slade joined the visitor. The young man glanced angrily about the yard at the liverymen who had not intervened in the trouble. They were now insouciantly directed on their own affairs again. "Sir, I apologize for the boors you've met in my House," Teddy said. Someone chuckled from behind a car at the words. "Leave the trunk. I'll have Housemen bring it in."

"No problem," said Danny Pritchard as he swung the gear handle from one corner of the trunk. He began spinning the handle with an ease that belied the trunk's weight. Coon Blegan had grimaced when his master spoke of leaving the trunk. The old servant knew as Pritchard did himself that if left unguarded, the luggage would surely be ransacked.

Wheels lowered from the four corners, jacking the trunk up by smooth degrees. Powered units were simpler while they worked; but they stopped working when your traps were off-loaded into a swamp, or somebody turned a valve that flooded the cargo bay with nascent chlorine. Most mercs got along, as Pritchard did, with muscle-powered come-alongs for their hold baggage.

This time the trunk held clothing along with a submachine gun, three spare barrels, a thousand rounds of ammunition, and a suit of body armor. Pritchard had not been going to leave it in the courtyard if the only alternative had been to lift the full hundred and eighty kilos on his back.

The one-time officer extended the lever into a T-handled tow bar. "Shall we?" he suggested to the others.

But as Danny followed Blegan and young Slade, he swept his eyes around the courtyard. It was filled with men and equipment and arrogance. Pritchard had been a staff officer for a decade and Hammer's heir apparent for over a year. It was still easy to recall the days when he had been only a blower captain himself. The days in which Danny Pritchard's decisions involved no more than how to kill the most men in the shortest time.


CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR


"And with one shot he kills it!" said Pretorius to the men who shared the dinner table with him and Slade. "Bam! Right into the gill chamber."

Chesson and Leaf, the other two members of the crew, smiled. The men maintained the filter lines; programmed the extrusion circuits depending on what the filters were bringing in; and more than occasionally disposed of the larger forms of sea-life when the rhythm and scent of the filters drew beasts to the station.

On Tethys, as almost universally on water oceans, the vegetation was mostly one-celled and the herbivores scarcely more complex. Virtually every life form big enough to be seen with the naked eye was carnivorous. Those carnivores ranged very much larger indeed, and not all of the Tethian varieties were toothless filter-feeders like the largest whales of Earth.

"Look," said Slade in more embarrassment than pride at the subject, "it was one shot after the beggar surfaced; but it was three before that had missed him under water. Don't know about you, Piet, but I was getting a mite nervous about a five-round clip and no reload."

"You'll get used to the angles, Soldier," Leaf said. He waved a rock-cruncher limb with a flag of muscle dangling from the joint. "I remember when the shells didn't have guidance units and you had to allow for deflection as well as refraction."

"Via, but it's been a long time since I ate one of these," said Slade as he forked another mouthful of cruncher himself. He wanted to change the subject; and besides, what he was saying was no more than the truth. "My old man always said nobody eats like a Councilor except the men who fish for the Councilor."

"I tell you, Soldier," said Chesson morosely. He was the youngest of the four by a decade; an eel-like, sharp-faced man. "You're eating a curst sight better than anybody's sending to Slade House this month past."

Leaf and Pretorius looked askance at their fellow, but Chesson plowed on bitterly. "Nobody minds sending a prime catch to the master, do they? Always been proud to, we have. Master Thomas knew he'd never had a better crew than the boys at Station Six. Isn't that so?"

Chesson glared around the table. The others nodded. "But there's no bloody good to that now, is there? Master Teddy can't take care of himself, much less us, and the Mistress—well, she's got some choice as to where she wants to sell herself, and no curst other choice in the world. That's a fact."

"Dyson, I suppose?" Slade said as if he were still concentrating on his meal.

For a moment, the only sound was that of the equipment washing itself down in the pump room. The filter lines were flushed and closed down at night. There was no safe or practical way to police them after dark. Temporarily-increased production would not make up for the certain damage when adult orcs or knife-jaws decided to make a meal of the lines.

Pretorius said, "No, it's not just him." The foreman took a second helping of potatoes in white sauce. "It's the whole Council, all forty of them."

"Thirty-nine," Leaf corrected.

"Whatever," the foreman snapped. More soberly, he continued. "Took 'em all together. Could easy enough have let Master Teddy take the Council seat when Master Thomas was killed. But no, set up a guardianship—the boy's nineteen! Via! I was captain of a catcher boat when I was nineteen. And then they hand the guardianship to Dyson, and every bloody thing to bloody Dyson."

"Bastard squeezes his people," said Chesson as he glared at his plate. "They say, blazes, what's it matter who sits on his butt in the House? You see them maybe twice in your life, so who cares what all they do to each other? But it's not true. If this was a Dyson plant—" he waved around the room and toward the packaging units beyond the wall—"there'd be a guard sitting with us to make sure we ate common rations. And none of the equipment out there'd have been replaced in thirty years."

Slade looked at the hard, weather-stained faces around the table. "Never heard much good about the Dysons myself," he said. He was trying to control the shudder of anger that swept him as he thought of the past. "But that strikes me as crazy. Bad business, let alone being a son of a bitch. I may not've run a Council House—" barely true—"but I don't guess it's a lot different from a company of mercs. You don't have to spring for every bit of hardware comes on the market. But if you run your plant down, buy junk or don't replace it, you aren't competing anymore."

Slade smiled, an expression as grim as anything anger had brought to the faces of the other three men. "Of course," the tanker concluded, "the business I was in you got your ass blown away too. I guess that's different from sea products."

"Might be a change Tethys'd be better off seeing," said Chesson. He gave a black look at the rocket guns racked by the door, ready in an emergency.

"Folks aren't bastards because that's profitable," said Pretorius, "though they may tell themselves that's why. They're bastards because they were born that way. And—" he looked around challengingly— "as long as I've lived, I don't know of anybody who was better off for being a bastard in the long run."

"Nor me," echoed Leaf. Even Chesson nodded agreement, though there was nothing in the younger man's face to suggest that he fully understood his foreman's point.

"So sure," Pretorius continued, "Dyson isn't a businessman the like of any Slade right back to the Settlement—and it isn't that the Slades couldn't show a hard hand when the need was."

Nods all around, Don Slade joining the others. His lips were stiff and his face still.

"But Dyson has the Council," said Pretorius, "and I suppose that means he has us in a few days or so. After all, who is there to stop him?"

"Who indeed?" muttered Don Slade as he clenched his great right hand.



"Well, Major Pritchard," said Marilee Slade, "Coon Blegan—you've met him, my son's . . . companion—"

"Nothing wrong with the word bodyguard," said Danny Pritchard mildly. He had seated himself when the woman offered him a chair, but she continued to pace the Trophy Room. Even flat-footed, she was taller than he was anyway.

"The word implies that we need bodyguards," Marilee said. "That Tethys is no longer a civilized world." When Pritchard made no response but a smile, the woman continued. "At any rate, Coon says I should hire your Colonel Hammer to clear undesirable elements off Tethys. I suppose you agree with that?"

She was not really hostile toward him, Danny decided. She was just very frustrated in general. Very possibly Marilee had watched his arrival through the window now behind her, and her subconscious preferred to over-compensate for the embarrassment she must feel.

Aloud Pritchard said, "Well, I might disagree on moral grounds if I thought it would work, ah, madam. But since I never have known it to work in circumstances like yours on Tethys, I'll pretend to be a practical man and disagree on practical terms instead."

The tall woman paused in mid-stride as her brain correlated the words her ears had heard a moment before. She looked at the man who lounged at ease, smiling at her. "Major—" she began in a tone more diffident than that of her angry assurance an instant previous.

"Please," said Danny Pritchard. "That was Alois' little joke, I'm sure, when he announced I was coming. Mister Pritchard. Or Danny, which I'd prefer. But I'm not a soldier anymore."

Marilee sat down with the abruptness of a gun returning to battery. She laughed as she looked out the window through which she could see nothing but sky from her present low angle. "Well," she said, "Danny, I suppose you'd better explain that. I hadn't expected to hear from a mercenary that force doesn't accomplish anything."

"Ex-mercenary," Pritchard corrected. The smile was back. "And force accomplishes a lot of things. They just aren't the ones you want here. Bring in the Slammers and we kick ass for as long as you pay us. Six months, a year. And we kick ass even if the other side brings in mercs of their own—which they'll do—but that's not a problem, not if you've got us." Unit pride lasted even after the unit's work became a matter of distaste. Pride beamed now from Danny Pritchard's face, and his hand caressed a tank that only his mind could see.

"So," the man went on. He got up without thinking about the action because he was focused on plans, on possibilities. "There's what? Three hundred thousand people on Tethys?"

Marilee's eyes narrowed. "On the Council Islands, about. There's a lot more in little holdings on the unclaimed islands, but I don't think anyone can be sure of numbers."

"So," Pritchard repeated. The word was his equivalent of the Enter key when his mind was computing possibilities. "You want to kill fifty kay? Fifty thousand people, let's remember they're people for the moment."

"I don't want to kill anybody!" the woman snapped. She swung abruptly to her feet again. Her boots rapped on the inlaid floor over which her visitor's heels had glided unheard. "I don't even want to kill Bev Dyson. I grew up with him, after all, I . . . maybe he did kill my husband. But I don't want to know that for sure. And I don't want him killed."

"You see," said Danny Pritchard, as if he had not heard his companion expose a part of herself that she had not known existed, "if we go in quick and dirty, the only way that has a prayer of working is if we get them all. If we get everybody who opposes you, everybody related to them, everybody who called them master—everybody."

"They aren't all dangerous!" Marilee shouted. She turned to the wall of trophies and went on in nearly as loud a voice. "They aren't any of them dangerous, except maybe a few. What are you talking about?" She spun back to Pritchard.

The ex-soldier nodded in agreement. "They're not dangerous now, but they will be after the killing starts. Believe me—" he raised a hand to forestall another protest— "I've seen it often enough. Not all of them, but one in ten, one in a hundred. One in a thousand's enough when he blasts your car down over the ocean a year from now. You'll see. It changes people, the killing does. Once it starts, there's no way to stop it but all the way to the end. If you figure to still live here on Tethys."

"M—Danny!" the woman said. "I told you, I don't want killing. Why do you keep saying that?"

"What do you think the Slammers do, milady?" asked Danny Pritchard. His grin was wide as a demon's, as cruel as the muzzle of the guns he remembered using so well. "Work magic? We kill, and we're good at it, bloody good. You call the Slammers in to solve your problems here and you'll be able to cover the Port with the corpses. I guarantee it. I've done it, milady. In my time."

He was still grinning. Marilee Slade gasped and turned away. The blast-scarred skull of a knife-jaw was on the wall behind her. The yellowing skull was two meters along the line of the teeth, a record even for the days of the Settlement when the creature had savaged a guard tower and three men. For a moment, the knife-jaw looked less ruthless than did the man who had seemed so mild until he began describing options.

"All right, Mister Pritchard," Marilee said to her clenched hands. "My son says we're better off letting the law take its course, even when that course is against us. I—I don't think I believe that. I know Tom's death wasn't, wasn't chance. But I didn't mean to bring in an army, either, even without what you just said. I suppose we'll let Bev have his way, then, and—hope for the best."

She shook herself. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to be ungracious. Will you have refreshments? A stim cone?" She stepped toward the refrigerated cart resting against a sidewall.

"No, I'm fine," said Danny Pritchard. His face had loosened from its rictus. Now he sat again in the chair from which thought had propelled him. "You see," he continued mildly, "using the Slammers on your problem is like settling a tank on a nut to crack it. I . . . I'm not the sort to say, roll over and play dead to injustice. Even when injustice has the law behind it. You were hoping Don would come home. It's for him—and for me and for the Colonel, there's a lot of us who owe Don—it's for him I came here. We pay our debts. But what did you have in mind for him, for your—brother-in-law?"

Marilee continued to face her visitor. Her hand crept up unconsciously to caress the trophy skull above her. The cranium between the two eyesockets had been punched away by the shot which killed the creature. It had been a 10 cm bolt from a gun like those on the drones in the courtyard, anti-tank weapons really and the only medicine that could dependably put paid to the monsters which disputed the Settlement. Nothing like them threatened the Council Islands anymore. The beasts bred and hunted elsewhere, now, the progeny of the creatures which had survived. Natural selection had proved to the most savage natives of Tethys that Man was still more savage.

Marilee thought of herself and of her son. The awareness was not a happy one.

"I thought perhaps if they saw him," the tall woman said aloud. She was trying to find words to answer a question she had herself avoided asking. "I thought, they can ignore me, ignore Teddy. They could even ignore Tom because he was too good, too curst good to treat them the way his grandfather would have done. Maybe even his father."

Marilee took her hand from the skull and laced her fingers together. She bent them back against one another fiercely. "But they couldn't ignore Don, could they? And besides . . ." she added, her eyes drawn to the window but her mind drifting far beyond the present, "I never really wanted him to leave. Whatever I said."

"Well, knowing Don," said Danny Pritchard from his chair, "I'd expect him back just about any time now."

"He mustn't come now," the woman blurted. "It's too late. The Council's committed. They'd kill him."

"They would?" said Danny Pritchard. "Those down in the yard?" The professional began to laugh. "They'll learn something about status in Hell if they try, milady. They will that."




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