Authors: Robert Frezza
Tags: #Man-Woman Relationships, #Interplanetary voyages, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Space and Time, #General, #Adventure
A Del Rey® Book
BALLANTINE BOOKS • NEW YORK
The beer joint we were in qualified as a dimly lit dive, one of many that litter the alleys of Rio, the imaginatively named capital of Brasilia Nuevo. Beer joints and spacers go together, like Fred and Ginger or magnets and iron filings, which still doesn’t explain why the messes I get myself into always start out in bars.
As the floor show involving four-legged animals and dancers of indeterminate gender threatened to spill over onto our table, I asked my partner, Catarina Lindquist, “How long do we plan on waiting for our contact to show?”
“Ken, Navy Intelligence special agents are notoriously unpunctual.” She tipped down her sunglasses. “You aren’t getting cold feet, are you?”
Catarina and I have a complicated relationship, in that my life has developed complications since I met her. “Did you have to spray-paint ‘Positions Available’ on the sign advertising ‘Live Sexy Revue,’ and do they amputate toes for frostbite?”
The comer of her mouth turned down. “I’ve heard it said that it is better to die on your feet than to live when they freeze.”
Catarina employs very bad puns, partly because she adores them and partly because I don’t.
“Couldn’t we just go back to the ship and watch a movie?” I pleaded. “I picked up a new remake of
Her eyes surveyed the row of bottles behind the bar. She said in a deceptively mild voice, “How about if we watch ‘Tequila Mockingbird’ instead?”
A sharp throbbing pain appeared between my eyes. “My head hurts.”
She stroked my forehead solicitously. “I’m sorry. Is it a real pain or is it a—”
“No. It is
a champagne.” I sucked in my breath. “Let’s give this guy five more minutes.”
Catarina smiled and laid her hand firmly across my arm in case I got a sudden urge to jump. She said, “Ken, sherry, you jest. This den of giniquity isn’t much of a bar-gain, but this is a pretty big space
Wine not give our man another hour? Beer in mind that if we don’t rum into him here, our chances of cognacing him aren’t very rose,” thus proving that she was indisputably liquor on the uptake than I was.
She then politely thumped me on the back until I stopped choking. I considered jumping, but leaping out of a ground floor window is not an ideal way to attempt suicide.
The bartender came over. “Senhor, you are very pale. In this establishment it is customary to choke after drinking and not before.” He tilted his head. “You don’t look well at all.”
Like bartenders on other planets where they run armed guards on the beer trucks, bartenders on Brasilia Nuevo avoid difficulties with the police by arranging for their customers to die elsewhere. I waved my arm at him. “It’s okay. I usually look this way. How about two bottles of mineral water?”
the caps on,” Catarina stipulated.
The bartender mopped his forehead nervously. “I will see what I can do.”
As he departed I asked Catarina, “What will our contact look like, anyway?”
“Navy Intelligence undercover types try to blend in.” She nudged me. “Kind of like ‘Guido’ there.”
Short and swarthy with greasy black ringlets and lots of gold chain, “Guido” looked more local than the locals did. Pausing to twirl a toothpick in his mouth, he sauntered in our direction. “Senhor, senhorita, you are spacers, I see.” Carefully enunciating each word, he asked, “Do you happen to have a match?”
Catarina kept a straight face and said with equal care, “No, neither of us smoke. But I could supply you with a lighter.”
“That is all right. Tobacco is illegal, so I am trying to quit. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Sandy Francisco.”
I gritted my teeth. Our last undercover agent had introduced himself as Newt York. I decided to jump in before the cloak-and-dagger stuff got out of hand. “Pleased to meet you, Sandy. I’m Ken Mac Kay, captain of the merchant vessel,
This is my partner, Catarina Lindquist.”
Sandy took a seat and placed a good commercial voice scrambler on the table to make sure nobody would eavesdrop. “By coincidence, I have a cargo I wish to ship off planet. A few tons of fertilizer. What good fortune it is I ran into you,” he repeated by rote.
Rear Admiral Lydia Crenshaw, the sector commander, has a sense of humor similar to Catarina’s, and the old bat personally selected “a few tons of fertilizer” as our code phrase. My ship,
affectionately known as
The Rusty Scupper
, is a Kobold-class freighter. I had her rebuilt after a IPlixxi* warfleet tried to turn her into junk during her brief and reluctant career as a Confederation Navy warship, although an unbiased observer would have concluded that she was junk years before the IPlixxi* shot holes in her. As a result of a recent change in government, she now serves as the unofficial flagship of the IPlixxi* Navy, in part because we used pieces of the previous flagship to patch her up. As reconfigured, she boasts five holds, an almost new set of Madsen drives, and an AN-33 missile launcher in Number One Hold which I decided to keep after I saw the quote on what it would cost to take it out. We haul stuff from planet to planet, and my rates are very affordable.
I reluctantly launched into my sales pitch. When I finished, Sandy scratched his head and stepped out of character. “
Where have I heard that name?”
I explained modestly, “We helped fight off some Plixxi ships at Schuyler’s World.” I left the tongue-click off the beginning of the word IPlixxi* and the charming hoot-whistle off the end. Actually, Catarina and I could have billed our crew as the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, but that’s another story, which has since become a very bad movie.
“Oh, I didn’t make the connection.” Sandy wagged his finger. “You’re
Ken MacKay. I thought you were older. You know, the guy who played you in the movie—”
older,” I explained.
Sandy looked at us with something resembling respect. “Let me buy you two a drink.”
“We’ll have to pass, but thanks for the offer,” Catarina said tactfully.
Sandy slapped himself on the forehead. “Oh, that’s right. I remember reading that you two are vamps. You should wear your capes.”
I winced. “Call it McLendon’s Syndrome, please.” Vamp is short for vampire, and McLendon’s Syndrome is distantly related to the kind of vampirism you read about in books with naked women on the cover. The disease is a slow-progressing bacterial disease like leprosy. Maybe three percent of the population has a genetic predisposition for it, and being one of the lucky few is as close as I’m ever going to come to winning the lottery. Thanks to McLendon’s, Catarina has an alabaster complexion and platinum hair, while I have the functional equivalent of a prison pallor and mousy, colorless hair.
Catarina gave Sandy a crooked smile. “Please understand that the disease is similar to porphyria and that there’s nothing supernatural about it. Ken and I do not sip blood from the living or sleep in tubs of Transylvanian night soil.” She accuses people who think that vamps drink blood of “circulatory reasoning.”
“Tomato juice is enough to make me queasy,” I interjected, “and my friends only call me ‘the living dead’ because I fall asleep at parties.”
Contrite and genuinely curious, Sandy said, “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were sensitive about it. The disease slows down the aging process, doesn’t it?”
“Researchers think that the disease encourages promiscuous cell replacement and cushions the impact of glucocorticoids on the body, so theoretically Catarina and I would live longer than normal people if we quit doing jobs for Admiral Crenshaw,” I explained, “but it isn’t something you want to catch. The two of us have every food and skin allergy known to man.”
“Sunlight? Garlic?” Sandy reflected.
“I can get sun poisoning on a cloudy day,” I said glumly, “and thinking about a Korean restaurant is enough to make my sinuses swell.”
McLendon’s is nothing to fool with. Every month, it seems like you read in the tabloids about some poor, whacked-out vamp who abandoned a home and a job and ended up on the streets, living in a cemetery with his or her possessions piled into a shopping cart.
“What about the Rats? Are you still having problems with them?” Sandy asked, taking a break from playing spy.
“Call them Rodents, or Plixxi, please. Some of my best friends are Rats, including the new Poobah, Bucky Beaver. He made me an honorary captain in the Plixxi Navy. He made Catarina an honorary rear admiral, which may suggest that I’m hurting for friends.” I stepped on Catarina’s toe so she wouldn’t repeat the line about her rear being admirable.
Sandy waved his free hand for emphasis. “Didn’t I read somewhere that the two of you got mixed up in the succession war they had about six months ago?”
Catarina and I exchanged glances. “Well, yes—Bucky accepted a challenge from his youngest surviving demi-brother, who uses the name Mordred, but a succession war on Plixxi is considered harmless entertainment, like an election. Each pretender buys up supporters for a couple of weeks, and whoever has the most edged weapons is declared the winner, while the loser leaves town on a fast-riding beast.”
“It’s considered a bad omen if someone other than one of the principals gets killed.” Catarina touched her finger to her nose. “Fun’s fun, Sandy, but we need to get down to business. Where does Admiral Crenshaw want her fertilizer shipped?”
Sandy looked embarrassed. “Alt Bauemhof.”
The planet has several other names, some of which are printable. It’s a place that nine out of ten tourists would recommend to people they actively dislike, mostly because the Macdonalds live there.
Macdonalds were the first intelligent nonhuman species mankind stumbled across, unless you count dolphins and lawyers. They look like wizened little gnomes, and being a proud and aggressive bunch, they weren’t too thrilled to find out that they were number two in the known universe. The Confederation formed the Contact/Survey Corps specifically to uplift them. The Macdonalds have long considered this a mortal insult since Contact boys tend to be long on altruism and short on smarts. Having put several generations of steady military progress under their belts, they’ve reached the point where they want to conquer new worlds, and they’d probably try if they weren’t tolerably certain that the Confederation Navy would kick their tails. Except at the govemment-to-govemment level, this causes a certain amount of friction, and I personally haven’t forgiven them for covertly financing the flare-up with the Rodents that nearly cost Catarina and me a chance of living long enough to retire.
Sandy stood up. “It just so happens that this place has a back room, where Admiral Crenshaw is waiting to fill you in on the details.”
I nodded. “I’m not feeling very good.”
“You do look pretty awful,” Sandy observed. “Have you tried vitamin B-12? My girlfriend swears by it. And maybe some calcium and vitamin C for your skin. Well, I hope I’ll see you again!”
“Me, too,” I said with more enthusiasm than I felt.
As he walked away I looked at Catarina out of the comer of my eye. “You know, I just remembered something I left back on the ship.”
She took me gently by the arm. “Come on, Ken. It’ll be nice to see Lydia.”
We found Admiral Crenshaw in the back room in a very loud muumuu, playing solitaire. Crenshaw is a very big, very overbearing black lady. The navy hierarchy keeps trying to bury her behind a desk somewhere. I keep hoping they’ll succeed.
She shoved her cards aside. “Catarina! Good to see you! Pull up a chair. You, too, shorty.” Crenshaw was Catarina’s Tac Officer at the Naval Academy, and the two of them have a free and easy relationship that Lydia has not asked me to share. “I knew if I sent an errand boy to relay orders to your boyfriend here, he’d tell my messenger to take a flying leap.”
“What’s this about sending us to Alt Bauemhof?” I asked, cautiously seating myself next to Catarina. “The Macdonalds don’t let Confederation ships visit their planet.”
“Technically, you’re not a Confederation ship. You have Rodent registry,” Lydia said patiently.
“Yeah, but everybody who can afford the price of a newspaper knows that Catarina is ex-Navy Intelligence, I’m a lieutenant in the reserves, and that rust trap of ours fought the only naval battle worth the price of popcorn in the last fifty years. Aren’t the Macdonalds going to figure we’re still on the navy payroll?”
“Ken,” Catarina explained gently, “the Macdonalds know that we’re N.I. We know that they know we’re N.I. They know that we know that they know we’re N.I. After that, it gets complicated.”
“The Macdonalds transship a lot of goods from Confederation worlds through here, and they send a freighter about once a month. That ship had an unfortunate mishap a few days back—it should take a month to fix the damage. The Macdonalds either have to hire you or send out another ship. So they need you.” Crenshaw’s smile widened. “They’re also curious about you.”
Little alarm bells went off in my head. “Say again?” Crenshaw stretched. “The Macdonalds are still trying to decide whether they want to attempt to take over the universe.”