The White Lady had not been white, by any stretch of the imagination, for a very long time. And if she was a lady, she was the lady of indeterminate species you woke up next to in a sleazy crash-cube, with no recollection of which bar you dragged her out of, how you got there, or where your pants are. Inside, she was just as homely as outside, and every inch a mongrel. The drive system (her third in five years) was a refurbished Shaka Kwang III, the sole remnant of the forced—call it "nose-first"—landing of a commercial shuttle on its inaugural run. The piping was patched in from no fewer than half a dozen other ships and two Rugulan taxi cabs, and bore shining testament to the miracle of good old fashioned duct tape. The computer ran on an obsolete TriCorp 886 mom-board and had a mysterious tendency, whenever the pilot punched up the ram jets, to launch instead into a rousing round of computer golf. Making birdie on three consecutive holes had proven to be the key to regaining control of the ship.
She was a bitch, no doubt about it, but O'Rourke loved her. At any other port, he hesitated to leave her alone. Ran the risk of being towed as scrap or, as had happened more than once, becoming home to fast-moving squatters mistaking it for a derelict. But this was Bethdish, and he was headed for the Mare Inebrium, home away from ship, where O'Rourke was strictly A-list. They took good care of the Lady.
The place was packed, as always. O'Rourke picked his way through the room, carefully skirting a table of raucous Vikings. It was a good night to be in the Mare Inebrium. A jazz combo from a rhythmic planet was on the stage, and the entity that either was or merely claimed to be the spirit of Charlie Mingus was sitting in. Even the Mingus-thing knew O'Rourke, and took a moment to nod hello.
He got settled in at the bar, made the usual feign of paying Max for his first drink (always on the house, don't you insult me with your money, O'Rourke), and proceeded to work on getting enjoyably drunk on Biminozcka Sweet Water. The name was a boldfaced lie, a triumph of intergalactic marketing. And the stuff was good.
"Coming in or going out?" Max asked.
"Coming in, headed for Tirnadish," O'Rourke said. "About three tons of miner goo. I hear they have a pretty wild ceremony out there. I'm kind of looking forward to it."
"Only you, O'Rourke."
"Hey—it's part of the business. I got used to it a long time ago. And I've been involved in some pretty hairy soirees to boot."
Max laughed and moved off down the bar. O'Rourke spun on his stool and watched the crowd. Always a lot to watch at the Mare Inebrium. Mingus was soloing.
"Excusing me. You are O'Rourke?"
The being was tall and oddly thin. His skin was dark and mottled, and he was dressed in an expensive-looking belted tunic. For the most part, he was humanoid, but his eyes were thin slits lidded like a reptile's. O'Rourke didn't completely recognize the race, which made him a little edgy.
"Yeah, I'm O'Rourke. And you are?"
"Uashin. Bartender tells you're going to Biddalta."
"Tirnadish not far from Biddalta."
"What's this about?"
"I need passage to Biddalta. You are first traveler I find headed that way. I pay for boarding."
"I don't take passengers. Sorry."
Uashin laid a long, tapered hand on O'Rourke's shoulder, and didn't remove it when O'Rourke gave the universally-understood "that's not your best idea" glare.
"Very important I get to Biddalta." The slit eyes narrowed further.
O'Rourke gently moved out from under the alien's touch. "Brother, you don't understand. I drive a meat wagon."
"Space hearse. I cart dead bodies. They call me out to accident sites, like this mine cave-in I'm coming in from, and I take what's left back on home so the next of kin can made good on 'em. I got a little cabin up front with enough room for me to crash, and then I got sixteen hundred cubic feet of cold storage. It's just me, my ship, and some dead guys. Nothing personal."
Uashin nodded. His head seemed to float on his neck.
"I must get to Biddalta. Costs will be covered, and ample pay is for your services."
O'Rourke set his drink down on the bar. To those that knew him, this was a clear sign that his tolerance had just been pushed. He sighed, and not for effect.
"You got ears, Sparky? Looks like you do. Good. Tune 'em in. I…don't…take …passengers. Ever. Paying or not. I cart the dead. You want to travel, join the merchies." His hand dropped to the holster strapped low on his leg. "Be a clever feller. Take 'no' for an answer, and get out of my face."
Uashin nodded slowly again, a movement that was beginning to irk O'Rourke. Then he motioned to Max that O'Rourke's drink was on him—no argument from O'Rourke—and he faded into the crowd of the Mare Inebrium.
O'Rourke watched him until he was sure the alien was gone, then turned back to the task at hand: getting sloshed.
Ancient Norwegian is not an easy language in which to sing, but thanks to Biminozcka Sweet Water and some very insistent Vikings, O'Rourke had more or less mastered the tale of Brigit the Irish farmer's daughter and someone called the Red Jarl, and it was this song he crooned as he staggered through the starport and back toward the White Lady. Taking off in the morning would be tough, but it wouldn't be the first time he'd maneuvered out of port with a cold rag over his eyes and an intravenous coffee drip working.
It was late and the docks were quiet. The area was lit only by the running lights of the small boarding shuttles that took pilots to their ships hanging in the night sky. O'Rourke fumbled with his passkey, dropped it on the ground. When he reached for it, he kicked it ahead of him. He cursed—in perfect ancient Norwegian—and finally snatched the card. He stood back up.
And took a fist square across the back of the head.
He staggered forward a step before his assailant caught him again, one arm around his throat and another pulling back hard on his forehead. O'Rourke's head started to clear, adrenaline sobriety. He drove an elbow backwards once, twice. The grip on his throat released slightly. O'Rourke grabbed the arm, ducked and yanked. His attacker came over O'Rourke's shoulder and slammed onto the concrete.
It was Uashin.
O'Rourke's pistol was immediately out of its holster and trained dead on the alien. The muzzle of the gun looked surprisingly like Uashin's mouth, a thin break as opposed to a barrel. The weapon fired flat, razor-sharp disks, three rounds per second out of a fifty-shot magazine.
"You miserable son of—" O'Rourke started, but then he saw the alien's hand jerk toward his belt. With neither thought nor hesitation, O'Rourke squeezed the trigger. Three seconds' worth. Uashin's chest and stomach burst in a hazy spray of blood.
O'Rourke stood, gun still aimed in a shaking hand. It took some time for the moment to pass, for the roar in his head to die down. Uashin's blood, cool and black and already beginning to harden on the concrete, spread like wings beneath him. O'Rourke became aware of silence, and with it, the realization that he was standing on the docks. In the open. He scanned quickly left and right. No one. The gun was quiet and Uashin hadn't screamed. Perhaps no one heard.
O'Rourke crouched down, careful not to get any more blood on his clothes. He wanted whatever Uashin had been reaching for on the belt.
There was nothing.
O'Rourke felt along the length of the belt. Nothing. It was flat, nothing concealed, nothing stuck in or through it. Uashin was dressed in a tunic cinched by the belt. O'Rourke, queasy about it, reached into the folds of the tunic and felt around. Nothing but chill blood and ripped skin. He rolled the alien over. Nothing. Uashin hadn't been reaching for anything.
O'Rourke had murdered Uashin.
At least, that was how it would look. One drunken space pilot, one unarmed alien, a zizz gun, and a lot of blood. No one would buy the truth.
He looked around again. There was still no one on the docks. Strange. Good for O'Rourke, but strange. He had to move Uashin, and there was only one place for him.
O'Rourke took Uashin by the arms and dragged him across the dock toward a shuttle. The alien's blood, coagulating now into a purplish gelatin, painted a swath along the concrete. That wouldn't do. O'Rourke let Uashin drop and crouched again to touch the blood. Already, it was almost hard, the consistency of clay. Eventually, O'Rourke thought, he's got to run out.
So, moving as quickly as he could under the combined weight of the remnants of a good drunk and a dead-weight pseudoreptilian, O'Rourke dragged Uashin in a wide circle around the original pool of blood. After only a minute or so—a damned exhausting minute at that—it looked like the alien was leaving no more blood. O'Rourke said a blessing and dragged the alien toward a shuttle at the far end of the row.
Leaning Uashin against the shuttle, he swiped his pilot's passkey past the sensors on the door. The door computer responded with his full name—which very few people knew—and ship's registration. The doors burped open and O'Rourke all but dove inside with Uashin.
He hurriedly got himself situated in the driver's seat and again passed his passkey over a sensor to open the controls. Ten minutes and he'd be back on the Lady. He could stuff Uashin into a meat locker, eject him once he was clear of the system, and no one would know. Wouldn't have been the first time.
The shuttle was not responding. O'Rourke tried the passkey again. Nothing. He grabbed a comset and slipped it over one ear.
"Bethdish control, this is O'Rourke, captain of the White Lady, waiting for clearance." Come on, you bastards.
"Shuttle seventeen-tee," came the cool automated reply, "be advised that Bethdish station is still on hold. Please wait for periodic updates." A thin beep ended the transmission.
On hold? That wouldn't do. He buzzed the tower again. He got the recording again. He buzzed the tower again. He got a live body.
"Shuttle seventeen-tee, this is Bethdish control."
"Control, O'Rourke of the White Lady. I'm trying to get up to my ship to pull out. What's the hold up?"
The was a long, uncomfortable pause. "White Lady, your plan has you in port for two more days. You are not scheduled for departure."
"Is that the problem? Can't I just get up to my ship?"
"White Lady, we've got a diplomatic envoy incoming. All traffic is on hold until the envoy is docked."
So that was why the docks were dead. Everyone else—everyone who had been sober—knew about the envoy. O'Rourke rubbed his eyes. This was bad timing. All by the book, nice and official and clean, but real bad timing. And it wasn't like he could drag Uashin anywhere else. His luck had to run out some time.
"Control, am I allowed to stay with this shuttle? I…uh, I already dragged in my gear."
Another pause, then: "Shuttle seventeen-tee, reserved and secured for White Lady. Feel free to leave the vessel, Captain O'Rourke. Bethdish control has you locked down."
Leave the vessel. Oh, sure. O'Rourke was staying right where he was.
That conviction lasted less than thirty minutes, at which point Uashin began to stink. It had taken some time, but his innards had at last betrayed him to the final indignity of death. The smell, rank and acidic, made O'Rourke wonder what Uashin's kind ate. He did what he could to deal with it, but it literally smarted his eyes and churned his stomach. As much as he hated to do it, he had to get out of the shuttle. It was secured by control; no one could get in. And there were no windows except for the front visor, which hung eight feet out over the dock, so no one could really get a good look inside. As if to hurry O'Rourke along, Uashin's body discovered one more gas pocket to rupture. That was it.
O'Rourke needed advice, fresh air, and a stiff, potentially dangerous drink. He could get at least two of those at the Mare Inebrium.
"He jumped you?" Max asked. They had taken themselves to the far end of the bar. O'Rourke just nodded and pounded a shot of fiery Dark Leilah. "Why?"
O'Rourke shrugged. "Needed that lift bad enough to jack me, I guess."
"But he was unarmed?"
"Far as I could tell, yeah."
"Doesn't make any sense, O'Rourke. Unarmed sentients don't kidnap spaceships."
"Well, I know that," O'Rourke said, lowering his voice, "but I've got his rotten carcass stashed in a shuttle and I have to get out of here before anyone realizes he's missing. I mean, I can airlock him once I'm out, but I have to get out!"
Max looked around the bar. "You know how many angry pilots are in here tonight? Guys who were scheduled to ship?"
"I'm not worried about them," O'Rourke muttered. "I'm worried about me and a dead snake. You must have some pull, Max. Get me up to the Lady."
Max smiled. "How many times have I heard that, huh? I wish I was half as connected as you people think I am. I wouldn't be tending bar, that's for damn sure. Sorry, O'Rourke."
O'Rourke slammed down the last of the Leilah, then slammed down the empty glass. "Friggin' diplomats," he spat. Max refilled his drink with something new. O'Rourke killed it in a swallow and barely noticed that it tasted like mocha paint thinner.
Suddenly, everything stopped. Literally. The music stopped, discussions stopped, thirteen different systems of respiration, from mere breathing to anabolic oxidation, stopped. It was the kind of silence that hits when a door opens ominously, but as far as O'Rourke could see, the door was still closed.
Then the door stepped into the room.
They came in sideways, four of them, ducking under the lintel and standing like a freshly constructed wall between the bar's patrons and the exit. Each looked to be broader across the shoulders than they were tall, and they were taller than anyone—or anything—else in the place. They were virtually identical, block-like heads of waxy skin the color of unpainted hull steel, with wide gray eyes and a black-toothed mouth that took up three-quarters of their faces. They were sexless and wore nothing more than a red sash across their broad bodies and a belt cinched around their tree-trunk waists. Tucked into each belt was a huge mace, the head dripping with a goo that sparked intermittently.
"Fuck," Max whispered. "Gaknovites."
Like a glacier breaking, the Gaknovites began to move into the bar. One went to the right, one to the left. The other two moved down the center of the bar, drifting slowly to either side. They stopped at the first tables they came to and leaned down to address the beings sitting there. Sound had not returned to the Mare Inebrium.
"What's a Gaknovite?" O'Rourke said quietly.
"Bad," Max replied. "Baddest of the bad. I've never seen one, only heard of them. And when people talk about them, they're scared. Gaks are the most feared race in their system. Any system. They live for war."
"And I hear they don't stay down unless you kill them. You shoot one, no matter how bad, blow a limb off, whatever, it gets back up."
Heads were shaking furiously at each table the Gaknovites visited. Each time they stopped, a strange white light glowed against their building-width chests. They were asking questions, that much was clear even at a distance.
Questions, O'Rourke thought, might not be good.
"What are the odds?" he asked Max, the question finished perfectly in silence.
"Hard to say. Stay cool."
"Can't you toss these guys out? It's your bar."
"Not entirely. Besides, see the one dead center? The really big one? See that starburst thing pinning his sash?" O'Rourke did. "It's a diplomatic emblem."
O'Rourke's drink went cold in his hands. "Please tell me something better."
"They're the diplomats."
"That wasn't better."
One of the Gaknovites made his way toward the bar. Just before it made eye contact with Max, the bartender was off down the bar, looking busy and putting plenty of wood between himself and the behemoth. O'Rourke leaned into his drink and waited. Shortly, he heard a thundercloud rumble that could only have been what passed for Gaknovite speech. He looked up cautiously. The huge alien was down the bar further, talking with some comparatively small life forms. Out of the corner of his eye, O'Rourke was fairly sure he saw one of the slimy little snot-balls gesture in his direction.
The Gaknovite turned and strode toward him. O'Rourke's bowels turned to water and he felt the Dark Leilah rising. The Gak stopped in front of him, a translator plastered to its temple, looking like a dollop of putty and a twig. It raised a beefy, three fingered hand that held a crystal as big as both of O'Rourke's fists. With a sound like a duck fart, a cone of light squirted out of the crystal and seemed to harden in mid-air. It hardened into the likeness of a face, and that face was Uashin's.
When the Gaknovite spoke, its voice, a low, nearly subsonic rumble, was contrapuntal to the easy humanoid voice of the translator. For a moment, it baffled O'Rourke. When the Gaknovite had to repeat itself, even the translator picked up on its displeasure.
"I reiterate," the translator said. "We intently pursue the sentient that is now indicated within the representation in the air before us. The sentient I am now indicating by pointing has stated as factual that you have, at a recent point in time, shared conversation with the sentient that is now indicated within the representation in the air before us. Do you have cognizance of the _____?" Like a badly dubbed movie, the Gaknovite had ceased speaking a few seconds before the translator completed its work. The translator, which was clearly having trouble finding one-to-one interpretations of the alien's guttural speech, couldn't come up with a suitable match for the last word. What it spat out sounded strangely like my mama has gears.
O'Rourke could see himself in the glossy gray eyes of the Gaknovite. He looked very much like a man who was about to die from lying.
"No," he said, and waited for the Gak to crush his skull with two fingers.
The Gak made a sound like a landslide in its throat. "The information you have provided in the statement just recently made stands contrary to the information provided by the sentient whom I had recently indicated by pointing. There is reasonable cause to question the validity of your statement, which I am doing now."
The translator deserved hazard pay.
O'Rourke looked as squarely as he could into the Gak's eyes and said, "I didn't speak with anyone like that. I'm sorry."
The Gak grumbled again, then gently—as gently as hands the size of trucks could—squeezed the crystal. The image of Uashin disappeared. The Gak tucked the crystal into its belt, then reached behind itself—on the side opposite the mace, O'Rourke was pleased to note—and pulled out another device.
It was an odd-looking piece of work, plagued by harsh angles, clearly built by large, unwieldy hands for use by large, unwieldy hands. Two bug-eye sensors winked at O'Rourke. A brief flash lit his startled face. A rising whine, a subtle buzz, and the Gaknovite casually tucked the device back into its belt.
"For the purpose of your understanding," the translator struggled, "I am now informing you that you have been catalogued. Furthermore, I am now making the threatening promise of imminent and constant observation."
And when the Gak's mouth literally curled upward in an evil semblance of a grin, it was all O'Rourke could do to not throw up. The Gak moved two stools' length down the bar. O'Rourke heard the duck fart, and over the re-rising buzz of conversation, could just make out the translator asking "Do you have cognizance of the sentient directly behind me having cognizance of and/or engaging in conversation with the sentient that is now indicated within the representation in the air before us?"
O'Rourke feigned drinking from his empty glass and prayed for a chance to leave. The chance was slow in coming. It seemed that every time he looked up, the Gak was staring at him. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen. The Gaks were still working the room. He had to leave. Had to find a way back to the Lady. At the very least, he wanted to get back to the rancid but Gak-free enclosure of the shuttle. Fully expecting a Gaknovitian bellow or a fatal mace-blow across the back of the skull, O'Rourke rose—slowly—turned—slowly—and walked toward the door.
Although it took a hundred years to drag his two-ton feet across the bar, he finally laid a hand on the door knob. Every instinct, buzzing like electricity, told him that a Gak was right behind him. Eyes closed against the pain he was certain was coming, he pushed open the door and stepped outside.
And he did not die.
With the door of the Mare Inebrium at his back like the gates of Hell, O'Rourke shuddered with relief, then walked quickly toward the shuttle docks.
Some activity had returned to the docks. Word must have gotten around that the Gaks were the waited-on diplomats, and eager pilots were getting ready to board. All the shuttles remained gantried in their berths. O'Rourke could see hints of movement in the visors of some of the craft, and doors were open on others. Further down the docks, three beings stood around Uashin's coagulated blood. Watching them, O'Rourke nearly collided with a man stepping out of a shuttle. By way of apology, the man looked past O'Rourke's shoulder and asked, "What in blue hell is that?"
Before he turned, before he could stop himself from turning, O'Rourke knew exactly what in blue hell it was. It was a Gaknovite. It was probably more than one Gaknovite, matter of fact. Could have been all four, but even one would be too many. Helpless against his own morbid curiosity, he turned.
There were two. In tandem, they roared "Halt!" for which the translator had no problem finding a one-to-one interpretation. O'Rourke disobeyed immediately.
He had no doubt that the Gaks could easily outrun him, but damned if he wasn't going to try. What he was going to do when and if he made it to the shuttle was anyone's guess, and O'Rourke would have welcomed suggestions. Even if he got inside safely, he was reasonably sure a Gak could rip the doors of the hinges with a single hand. At least there would be something interesting to see before they pulled his limbs off.
The resounding slap of huge Gak feet on concrete was closing in. It was then that the realization struck: to get into the shuttle, he had to swipe his passkey. No way to do it on the fly. He would have to stop for just a moment. In that moment, they would strike. O'Rourke had no other choice.
The passkey was in his hand. The Gak's breath was boiling at his back. As he reached the door of the shuttle, he reached out with the passkey, swiping it past the sensor as he threw himself to the ground. The door burped open. The air rang with a scream of savaged metal and burned with ozone. The Gak had swung its mace, missing O'Rourke's head by inches and slamming into the shuttle's hull. A strand of adhesive goo stretched between the hull and the mace-head, crackling with voltage. O'Rourke half-rolled, half-launched himself through the door of the shuttle. The stench of dead Uashin hit nearly as hard as the second Gak's mace, which split the concrete behind him. The doors clunked shut as the Gaks raged.
O'Rourke all but vaulted into the pilot's seat. The shuttle rattled as the Gaks crashed their maces against the hull. O'Rourke swiped his passkey. The shuttle rang. The hull dented.
"Shuttle seventeen-tee," the friendly-calm automated voice said, "be advised that Bethdish station is still on hold. Please wait for periodic updates." Click.
O'Rourke punched the console and the hull rang again. The dent pulled itself further into the shuttle. On the console, a hull integrity warning burned red.
He swiped the passkey again, nearly in tears with the futility of it.
"Shuttle seventeen-tee be ad—"
The com crackled as the door bucked inward. A hiss like a long sigh hushed out of the speaker. Then, a voice, muffled and distant, but emphatic:
"Punch it, O'Rourke! You're clear! Go!" It was decidedly not the voice of Bethdish control.
He palmed the jettison button, felt the craft jerk as it pushed off from the dock on its mag-levs. He swung the nose around in time to see one of the Gaks, surprised by the sudden movement of the shuttle and taken halfway around by the momentum of a death-blow meant for O'Rourke, spin and launch backwards off the dock.
The shuttle was away, and O'Rourke was crying hysterically with laughter. Control was trying to call the shuttle, but their voice was buried under the hush. If they were trying to override the controls and pull the shuttle back, it wasn't working.
The distant voice called him by his first name. "I can't stay in control's system for long. You're good to go. The man says this one's on the house. Good luck."
Can't help me my ass, O'Rourke thought.
To get to the White Lady, the shuttle had to pull around what was clearly the Gaknovite envoy. It was wide but not long—squat, really—and carved without the mercy of curves. Watching it spin slowly in place, O'Rourke had to admit that it possessed a dreadful grace.
There were things coming off of it.
He only noticed them because of the tiny pinpoint flares that burned in a moment of sharp white against the hulking black of the envoy. Like fireflies at first—one here, one there. They might have been nav lights on the great ship. Then, with slow certainty, they began to fall into place. A formation. A wedge. The fireflies blinked in unison. The shuttle veered slightly to align with the docking port on the Lady. The fireflies veered as well. And they were closing in.
It made sense, O'Rourke thought, that the envoy also carried shuttlecraft. It was also entirely possible that those craft were going to try to intercept him before he could dock with the Lady. There was no way to hurry the pre-programmed shuttle, no throttle. Nor could he turn it back.
He cupped his hands against the visor to look out at the oncoming Gaknovite shuttles, but he couldn't see them very well. Just the adjusting flares of their attitude jets. He found it strange that they didn't have nav lights of their own. He pressed his face against the glass. Then he could see what was chasing him. They were not Gaknovite shuttles.
They were just Gaknovites.
He saw them in a unified flash of their EVA packs, half a dozen of them wearing nothing more than rebreathers and their big electric maces. Space affected them not at all. They were intently headed for the shuttle.
Now the Lady rolled into view, the mostly-working reference lights on her docking collar winking spastically at him. To dock, the shuttle would have to slow drastically. At that point, the Gaks would be all over the craft, and they would want in. The hard way. O'Rourke ran to the emergency closet, vaulting Uashin's carcass, and hurriedly suited up in the bright orange space suit. He left the zizz gun on the pilot's seat.
Everything happened entirely too fast. The docking alarm started pinging as the shuttle closed in on the Lady. O'Rourke bolted down his helmet. The craft lurched slightly as the retros pumped. O'Rourke lumbered back across the ship to strap in. Just before he sat down, there came a tremendous thud and a Gaknovite, skin glistening with the frost of cold space, was straddling the visor. The alarm pinged faster as the two ships moved closer to docking. O'Rourke stared into the blank gray eyes of the Gaknovite, who reared back with its mace and brought it slamming down against the visor.
The ships mated with a satisfying thump. The visor gave way with an unsatisfying shatter. A keening storm wind of explosive decompression ripped through the cabin. O'Rourke was yanked back against the console. Magnets on the space suit's boots held him fast. Uashin's body skimmed across the floor and wrapped itself around the pilot's chairs. The zizz gun bounced off O'Rourke's visor. He snatched out blindly and managed to catch it. He turned, dragging a foot to stay anchored. The Gak hammered the mace into the visor again, opening a hole the size of its considerable head. With a clumsy gloved finger, O'Rourke fired through the hole. Emptied the clip. Two score of razor sharp wheels peppered the Gaknovite's body, its blood freezing in tiny octopuses on its skin. As Max had said, grievous bodily harm slowed it only slightly. It reared back to swing again as another Gak thudded up against the visor. The shuttle door buckled under another blow from some unseen Gak.
The docking routine completed with a welcome clack. The airlock opened and a whole new rush of wind tore through the shuttle as space robbed the Lady's breath. O'Rourke dropped and braced against the console. The visor couldn't stand the force of the new storm and it gave way with a shriek, blowing the Gaknovites off the front of the shuttle.
The wind died down as the pressure—the lack of pressure—equalized. The craft vibrated noiselessly under more Gak blows. A big, ugly gray face peered in through the shattered visor. With one hand, it pulled the remnants of the visor aside and tried to squeeze its huge frame into the shuttle.
Clumsily, O'Rourke headed for the lock. He stepped over Uashin's body. Looked back. Leave him there? Hell, no. He'd come this far with the stiff; he wasn't going to deny himself the pleasure of popping the son of a bitch out into space himself. The Gaknovite, having either grossly overestimated the size of the visor opening or grossly underestimated the size of himself, was occupied with prying open the top of the shuttle. The door burst, peeling backward with extreme violence, and another Gak tried to sidle in through yet another too-small-for-Gaknovites opening. O'Rourke hauled up Uashin and launched him toward the airlock. He was quite satisfied when the weightless corpse rebounded off the wall.
Then they were through the lock, into the Lady's meat locker. O'Rourke palmed the iris door shut and sealed the lock, giving the signal for the shuttle to push off. The Lady swayed gently in the post-coital separation. The ventilation systems started to refill the air. O'Rourke squeezed into the cabin. Initiating docking had already powered up the meat wagon. He slammed a hand down to fire up the ram jets.
"It's a beautiful day at Whispering Pines!" the computer announced. "Let's play some golf!"
And the view screen was filled with the long, tree-lined first fairway of Whispering Pines Country Club. A gentle wind swayed the perfectly trimmed grass.
Half a dozen thuds on the hull said that the Gaknovites had made it to the Lady. They recovered quickly, O'Rourke thought. You have to admire that. And now, I'm going to die.
As if in confirmation, the Lady's hull screamed under mace-blows.
"You're up, pard," the computer said.
"Fuck you," O'Rourke replied.
He didn't want to die.
But he had a choice.
He could die or he could play golf.
The Gaknovites struck again. The Lady denied them. She was made of stronger stuff than the shuttle. She'd buy him some time, but not much. O'Rourke pulled his game glove down from above the console. He called for his titanium driver, and could feel the virtual club in his palms. "Whispering Pines my ass," he said aloud. "I own this course."
And, in perfect synch with another shot from the Gaknovites, he thundered a drive three hundred and ten yards, clean down the middle.
The view switched. A buck ten out from a two-tiered green. Pitching wedge. Lofted it neatly, rolled it up to four feet. The Gaknovites laid into the hull just as he was about to putt. He waited it out, then sank it easily.
The second hole was a long par five. He preferred to play it wide right, lay one up and go for the up and down for birdie. But when the Gaks struck again, a hull integrity warning lit up and O'Rourke knew he had to go for it in two and try to eagle out. He burned a drive tight to the corner, leaving himself just under two-fifty to the green. His fairway woods weren't strong, but he called for the three wood. He gaffed it because the Gaks struck again as he came through the swing, making him pull his head up. Still, he got decent club on it and it dribbled up to the edge of the green. A forty footer for eagle.
The break on the green was hard left to right and slightly uphill. He had to sink this. The way the warning light was flashing, he wasn't sure he had two putts left before the Gaks pulled the Lady apart. He lined it up fast, prayed he read it right, and punched it. He cursed because he was sure he'd pulled the putt. But the ball turned on the break, caught the lip of the cup toward the back, and fell in. Eagle. Gaks ready to kill him or not, sinking a forty footer was a nice feeling.
Their next blow nearly took him off his feet.
Third hole, a par three, uphill and guarded by nasty bunkers. Drop it short and go to hell. O'Rourke went one club up to compensate for the extra length. He swung. The glove gave back the solid feel of a well-struck golf shot. The ball lofted into the synthetic blue sky, came down on the fringe of the green, bounced once, and rolled. It coasted along the break, cruising to the right, dead on at the hole.
It was his very first hole-in-one.
Everything in the ship shut down at once.
"All power diverted to ram jets," the computer said.
O'Rourke was thrown against the back of the cabin by the force of take-off.
The men who had designed the White Lady would have been proud—astounded, but proud—of the speeds she reached then, speeds they'd never imagined she could hit. When you got right down to it, speeds a hearse never really needed. She rattled and bucked and whined with metal stress, but she held. In time—an eternity for the guy pressed up against the bulkhead wall—she slowed, sighed, and the systems were restored. Bethdish and the Gaknovites were somewhere well behind her and she was happy to drift gently through quiet black space.
O'Rourke was happy to let her. He passed out and slept like one of his passengers.
The ship was shaking.
No, he was shaking.
No, someone was shaking him.
O'Rourke sat bolt upright, which startled Uashin. Seeing Uashin upright at all startled O'Rourke. He tried to say something, and managed to say nothing at all.
"My belief is we are safe," Uashin said.
"You're dead," O'Rourke said.
"I need an explanation." No, he thought, what I need is fresh underwear. "A lot of explanation."
Uashin turned the pilot seat around and sat facing O'Rourke. There was not a single scar on his bare chest.
"Gaknovite use nanotechnology. Med-bots in themself. Sophisticated, you understand? Repair trauma. This way, Gaknovite soldiers, they don't stop. Body is healed as it fights on. Some trauma is too great. Death."
"Gaknovite find a way to beat death, too. More nanotechnology." He pointed to the back of his head. "Very powerful control unit in brain. Back-up brain function when body die"
"So I did kill you."
"As I intend, yes."
"And the nanotech fixed you up."
"Because you do not shoot me in head. Shoot in head, Gaknovite die."
"So you jumped me knowing I'd kill you?"
"Two reason: first, if nanotechnology do work, as it did, it is tested. Those who want it pay more as it is confirmed. Other reason: Gaknovite work on fear. Phobospectrometer. Catalogues something call 'fear profile.' Track by it. I am afraid of Gaknovite and they can find me. Dead, no fear. No fear profile."
O'Rourke remembered the device from the bar and the Gak's promise. "No profile, they can't find you."
"Okay, but what if I had shot you in the head?"
"In movies, shoot for head. In real life, bad choice. Smart man not shoot for head."
O'Rourke let the slick compliment slide. "And if I'd just left you there to rot?"
"I listen. Everyone know O'Rourke. You no could take that chance."
"So I'm guessing you're a spy."
"Smuggling nanotech out of Gak space."
Uashin nodded. "They wait for me on Biddalta."
"I'm not going to Biddalta."
"We go. Tech is tested. I am paid much." He waved a hand, searching for the words. "Seventy-thirty?"
O'Rourke smiled. "You got yourself a lift, Uashin. But you ride in the back."
My work has appeared in the small press magazine Shadow Sword, the anthology 'Between,' and The Orphic Chronicle web site. I also maintain the A Collection of Worlds website.
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