Second Chance


Chapter One


He felt like a fraud and a coward. Biting his tongue for the sake of,..., what? Until it all came crashing down like the card house it was. He wanted to die. Didn't care how, not really. Painlessly would be nice, but, as long as it was quick, he didn't care. When asked how things were going, he'd always reply -- fine. Fine. Right. He wanted to tell the truth; he wanted to say he felt like hell, that life meant nothing, less than nothing. Where he got the energy to go on, he had no idea. Thoughts of suicide were his constant companion, but something always held him back; he figured it was her. It certainly wasn't fear of the unknown; of that, at least, he was certain.

Live and let live had been his motto. But for years he'd worked hard to suppress his anger, to keep it under wraps, his protests against being treated with contempt and disrespect by people pretending to be his friends, to have his interests at heart. He put up with it; believed he needed their good will, for one reason or another. He wanted to get along. To maintain the status quo. To maintain a level of existence that proved satisfactory. His friends weren't all that bad, he'd tell himself, they'd help out when needed, but he noticed it was always on their terms.

Apparently, they presumed he hadn't the capacity or the heart to do otherwise than accept this treatment. Or perhaps they were just oblivious themselves, most people are. But he knew why he bit his tongue and allowed it to go on. For his love and their life together. For their home and the happiness they knew. He wanted to get along with everyone; be accepting and show the world his friendly side. When he was with her -- just the two of them -- he could be his true self, with all his foibles and gentleness and idosyncrasies, openly and easily. That was the beauty of their relationship, their friendship.

But when she died, the walls came tumbling down. Everything changed. He no longer had any reason to hold back. None. And in his grief, he found he hated those people, those friends. In fact, he fantacised about killing them for belittling his relationship in that macho demeaning way some men have. Off-hand things they'd say. He-men, he'd grumble to himself and shake his head dismissively; punks and childish bastards!

It was strangely liberating -- this deep-rooted anger. The irony didn't go unnoticed. And this anger turned towards him. After all, he set the stage. Mollifying, placating, allowing shit to go on that chipped away at his character, indirectly affecting his relationship, not only with her but with the world at large. He held back; it was how he'd become. He knew full well his abilities; he knew he could do something about his living situation, improve on it. But the goddamn status quo, maintain the staus quo. He felt guilty whenever he went against it, like he was blowing what he had, jeopardizing everything important. Now, it was too late and he no longer cared to maintain anything.

He felt a strength he used to know when young and it was religion to stand up for himself, for what was right, when nothing else mattered. It felt rough and strained at first, like muscles gone unused for far too long a time. Where did that go? he wondered, over and over. Trying to feel it again in his bones; followed by musings of if only. He felt vulnerable, untrusting of his instincts. But, vulnerability and self-doubt were what got him into this hell in the first place, so he brushed it aside with contempt for himself, for his weakness and excessive caution, for what he saw as his cowardice.

He'd drawn a cage around his freedom, a web that went around and through him, nullifying channels not prescribed. He'd forgotten, somewhere along the line, to take those paths. He'd forgotten that they led to control of one's life. Now, the cage had dissolved into the imaginary space it always was.

He became obsessive about his home, their home, kept it in order, thumbtacked Christmas and birthday cards to the walls, would stare around carefully studying the details, stilling the moment, taking everything in. If he could only concentrate hard enough in just the right way, she would appear. He looked at every little thing as though for the first time, examining momentoes with a reverance he rarely felt before. Reaching for her. For that person the two of them were together. That feeling of life. Wanting to feel that sense of home again, yet it faded into the background, just out of reach, elusive, like a shadow or a distant sound he could barely hear. Trying to remember how it'd been when she was there. Where she preferred to sit, how she sat,..., and stood and moved.

He refused to let go, had no idea what that meant. It hadn't been just her and him, it was them, what they had, their relationship and the life they were living. And now that was gone; there was no them. He thought about her every day, could sit in the backyard for hours without moving, thinking about her, talking to her as though she were there, her chair still next to his. He lived alone; it made it easier and yet harder at the same time. What was worse, what he couldn't get passed and probably never would, was that he was convinced it was his fault. He searched his mind trying to find others to blame, but it was no use. He knew, was sure, without doubt -- it was his fault she was dead. It was as though he'd killed her, plain and simple.

He drank almost every day. When he'd get drunk he'd rant, loudly, angrily, to his woods; railing at God in whom he no longer had any faith. To hell with you, God, he would yell. And much worse. His nearest neighbor was a good mile away, not that he gave a damn. He drank and cried and thought of suicide.

And how empty and quiet the woods were. The silence struck him, appalled his soul, threatened to rend him apart from within in a violent explosion, a supernova. Not the quiet of simply being alone, he'd been alone before when she was gone on errands in town or visiting friends. It was a strange sad quiet, like a children's playground with no children in it. It went right to the bone.

A few drunken crazy nights he ran around calling her name, looking for her, close to hysteria with anguish and loss. His sadness drenched him and stole his heart away. He refused to accept it, and blamed himself, over and over again -- she was dead because of what he'd become.

*************

He'd been in this condition since their return, two months past. His crew, an understanding lot, had found other occupations to tie them over while he struggled to get his shit together. At first they visited to try to console him, but it was no use. He was anything but friendly, often saying things about them, their occasional petty acts of selfishness, like going to the bar when in port leaving him to do work they should've done. Petty shit he really didn't care about, and they knew it. He was better left alone, they decided. So they would meet at the ship to work on projects, things you could only do when in port. They drank and talked and hung out and waited for their skipper.

That morning, the morning of the first day of spring, he joined them. Standing on the bridge, he tinkered with the navigation controls, performed a run-through on the drive unit and ran diagnostic programs on the computer system that controlled the ship, their ship, the Dragonfly.

It was a Class 'C' freighter/cargo vessel, 100 meters long, two storage decks aft that covered 80% of the overall length; the living quarters and bridge were forward. He'd invested most of his income in refitting the engines, couldn't afford new. Twin electric plasma engines, port and starboard, could get it up to nine-tenths light speed, then the reverse quark-drive would transport them by translating their vector coordinates through time, depositing them as many light years away as they chose, but only up to one parsec. It was a Class 'C' cargo ship, after all.

Up until the middle of the twenty-first century, scientists had hoped for success with a propulsion system powered by the quark field; it'd already made inroads into the computer and weapons industries. But trying to alter the space that surrounded a ship proved inadequate. Instabilities and insufficient containment protocols proved to be intractable problems. Lives were lost. Speeds approaching that of light were realized, but that's as far as it went. Back to the drawing board.

A breakthrough occurred around 2087 when a young astrophysicist, teamed with a spin-field engineer and a crystal-lattice metallurgist, came up with the idea of a reverse quark-drive. Instead of bending spacetime in some way -- warping its curvature -- they instead devised a process involving a series of discontinous collapsing events leading to an alteration of the constituent material of the ship itself and all its contents, as well as its living occupants. This did the trick. The entire ship could be transmuted into one large quark field, zipping through the underbelly of space, untouched by anything above the dimensions of a quark.

As presently understood, on the heels of the "Big Bang", quarks and gluons were alone in the otherwise empty vacuum. This mixture possessed the properties of a liquid, behaving as such, with all the features we know of a liquid. This medium was thus similar in nature if not in fact to that of the oceans. Currents, tidal effects, whirlpools, the whole shibang. Because the ship and its occupants moved predominately through space and not much time, they easily traveled from one spatial point to any other.

It wasn't as though classical four-dimensional spacetime -- the macro-world -- was transformed somehow into a sub-hadron form. No. Rather, the quark medium, always present fundamentally, was brought to the surface, dissolving materiality into a coherent vapor, a virtual soup composed of quark-antiquark virtual particles. Furthermore, the zero-point energy of the vacuum, with its infinite virtual particle-antiparticle fluctuations continuously erupting throughout, served only to reinforce and cushion the field as the ship smoothly jumped from position to position.

Quark reality is how it was interpreted for the masses. Zero resistance, practically. That is, in the quantum universe of pre-spacetime generation, there is no limiting light-velocity problem. And once between stars in the voids suffused with dark matter, there are no barriers to contend with, none exist. The reason being that in this supersymmetric configuration space, the influence of the Higgs field that accounts for particle mass, discovered in 2016 at Cern's Large Hadron Collider (LHC), is neutralized in this dark reality by passing under its radar, so to speak.

Although there are several candidates, the nature of dark matter is still unknown at this writing. Most suspect it's a hodge-podge of various unknown particles and fields. But it's been common knowledge -- had been since the early part of the 21st century -- that it's unaffected by electromagnetism and radioactivity, hence, no radiation -- the reason it's dark. No radiation, therefore, no sub-fields interfering with quantum space. No interference, no spatial distance, topologically. As far as dark matter was concerned, the gravitational effects had no meaning in quark reality.

Essentially, therefore, quarks are immune to gravity, can be in two places at once, and do not live on the same dimensional level we do. One bummer was that when traveling in this space, all was dark. Fortunately, it didn't take long to get from point to point.

He informed his men they had a job offer, if they still wanted on. They laughed. They were sick of port and wanted to be gone across the open sea heading outbound. He smiled back, probably for the first time since the incident. They all knew what to do to prepare: fortify stores, get fuel, check the engines and the computer equipment -- everything. They knew the drill. He left to solidify the deal, get the skinnies of when and where and what, expense money in advance to procure stuff, and papers signed. Afterwards, he and his navigator would hole up for a couple days going over the charts, picking the best course between waypoints, planning jumps. It was all helping. Getting his head into something practical -- a mission -- gave him that solidity and sense of control he needed.

The trip appeared routine, just another expedition to the edge, bringing equipment and supplies to the outback. Not very glamourous -- they were galactic long-haul truck drivers. But although the pay was spotty, the lifestyle was free and they traveled to places few ever got to explore, witnessed mindboggling celestial events, and got into more than a few scrapes. It was rough territory out there, on the edge. But they preferred it to the civilized life of town on Earth.

Over the years he'd saved enough to buy his own ship and hire a damn good crew, each with his own particular set of skills. Extreme personalities all, which is what you want, going where they did. The ship was old, some equipment needed to be replaced but, spit and baling wire kept the whole enterprise going. They were resourceful, had to be; there's no fix-em-up shops in deep space. Canabalizing a machine or swapping-out plasma motherboards was commonplace.

The end port on this job would take them to an unfamiar area. That whole section of the galaxy, in fact, was little known. Plenty of talk in bars: encounters with aliens; whirlpools of space suddenly materializing, whipping you far off course; fields of tiny black holes, like daisies spread out in space. Weird shit.

He stayed one long last day at home, tidying up, battening down the hatches; asking a friend to check on it now and again. He sat out back and spoke to her, telling her about the job. But finally, as it was getting dark, he got up and said good-bye. When he drove off, he almost cried; it was heart-wrenching -- she wasn't going with him.

Early the next morning they were ready to go. The cargo -- mining equipment and tons of food and other necessities of life had been stowed securely away. His crew fussed about checking the infinite details that went with pre-launch. Around sunrise, they were given clearance to take off, always a momentous event, filled with the mixed feelings of serious intention and joyful separation from the problems of society. When they cut the lines all thoughts of such things slowly faded into the distance, forgotten, their attention focusing on the present and their direction, on the trip.

The solar wind collides with the interstellar medium causing a termination shock that, due to solar flares, fluctuates position -- ranging from 8 billion miles from the sun to approximately 11 billion -- in the direction they were headed. It moved and undulated continuously like a bowl of plasma jello. Traveling at 1.5 million kilometers per hour, this tail-wind helped. The thickness of the heliosheath separating this shock boundary from the heliopause is about 20 AU or 1.8 billion miles. Their first waypoint was beyond the heliopause, a rubbery 10 billion miles upstream, depending. Traveling at almost light speed, with the help of the sun's wind, it would take about 12 to 15 hours to reach this region of space. Once there, they would make the final determination as to whether or not the parameters of the local environment proved conducive to a safe jump. Due to the weird time-backflush, no one was permitted to engage quark-drive before gettting outside the heliopause.

Passing through the heliosheath was a rough turbulent ride, but, at their speed, it wouldn't take long.

As far as navigational hazards were concerned, the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter would be first. They would have to temporarily angle off the ecliptic to go around the torus of material. Next, they had to get passed the Kuiper Belt that starts at about 3.7 billion miles from Earth and is about a billion miles thick (between 40 and 50 AU from the sun). At this time, Pluto's orbit was on Earth's side and so was only about 2.7 billion miles away. And later, the enveloping Oort cloud, estimated to be between one and two light years from the sun (between five and ten trillion miles), about a thousand times farther out then the outer boundary of the heliosphere, and the last collecion of solid bodies they need worry about before officially leaving the neighborhood of the Solar System.

The skipper busied himself going over the course for the umpteenth time. Excessive and unnecessary, he knew, but he wanted no mistakes. In spite of himself, the atmosphere onboard lightened his mood. Always that peculiar mix of excitement and nervous expectation that comes with the prospect of the unknown permeated the ship, working into the crew through their movements and chatter. They settled into their respective grooves and talked of the stories concerning their destination.

Fritz, the robotics engineer and computer specialist, prepared Sam to take over. When the quark field is initiated, the men would experience its effects as a tingling sensation throughout their bodies. It was uncomfortable but caused no irrevocable damage. However, susceptibility to fluctuations in the chemistry of the brain was always a possibility, affecting severe disorientation and potential memory loss. There were drugs to control these effects, but they often brought on worse problems of nausea and terrible headaches. So, as a precaution, those who traveled deep space were alloted robots by the government Office of Robotic Services to handle the ship during jumps while the crew secured themselves in special chambers designed to reinforce neural net stability through biochemical infusion. This procedure was by choice only, but the men in Captain Clifford Wainright's company always preferred it.

After much wrangling, they'd named their resident robot Sam. Robby, Data and R2D2 were offered, but the skipper's wife had liked Sam, the name of her mother's gardener when she was a child, so that was that. Sam stood six feet -- the standard for such types -- and weighed 3oo pounds. He, they referred to him as he, not it as many others did, looked like a robot, no fake polyvinyl skin or street clothes, no anatomically correct parts, none were needed except for appearances. He was the stripped-down stock model, nothing fancy. He worked a cargo ship running trips to deep space, not serving drinks at some social function. He did like to wear a straw hat, though. An affectation he adopted after once coming out of a jump a little too close to a massive neutron star. It apparently planted a seed of a personality into his otherwise stolid and neutral demeanor. Over the years, the seed had flourished into a full-blown character with something of an attitude. It didn't help that the rest of the crew -- he was thought of as a bona fide member -- had poured drinks down what passed for a throat more than a few times, but he seemed to like it. The alcohol reacted with the spin-field governing his neural net in ways Fritz couldn't understand.

Sam was ready and took his position in the captain's chair on the bridge, in full control, ready to manually take over running the ship or perform emergency corrections or repairs, if such became necessary. From that vantage he had access to navigation, life-support, computer oversight, and full 360 degree visuals. Holographically reproduced, three-dimensional star charts displayed on a laser-shaft above his station as well as within his brain pan. And if a problem developed with the cube of light, or any of the other components of the computer system, he could shift into independent mode at a nanosecond's notice, overriding system's protocols and reinitializing configuration space. But the ship's quark-field resonated in phase, within a safe range, with that of the system; so, seldom had there ever been destructive fluctuations severe enough to warrant a reboot.

The men took their places in their respective chambers, plugging themselves into their chemical feeds. It was time. Sam laid in the waypoint to the first jump site, in the void of space, safely distant from any major gravitational or magnetic influences, and flipped the switch. The ship dematerialized, changing instantly into a sphere of pure quark energy, a topological tranformation which proved most efficient for travel through quark space. Seconds went by as Sam closely monitored all systems, particularly those governing the security and integrity of the chambers as well as the quark-drive itself. In response to the soliton wave passing through, his quantum-molecular brain briefly increased amplitude across all modules, then settled in as the field permeated its interconections. He was one with the ship. In less that a minute, they had translated from point A to point B. It seemed not worth the effort to use the protective chambers, but it was a necessary precaution nonetheless, a rule they lived by. They had a handful of such rules they steadfastly obeyed; survival depended on it.

Sam checked the flight computer, the drive and subsidiary units as well as the integrity of the hull itself. All was ship-shape. Three more jumps and they'd be near their destination. He adjusted his straw hat, putting it at a jaunty angle, then after a cursory glance at the readouts monitoring the chambers, pushed the drive toggle. A brief shimmer preceeded the shift into quark space, then they were on their way, moving smoothly through what was now nothing more than a vector field of coordinate reference points.

A bright sun, twice the size of Earth's, greeted them. The fourth planet out was their port of call. Gauging by telemetry it was only slightly smaller than Earth and nowhere near as pretty; it looked more like Mars. Captain Wainright brought the system up on the holo display and conferenced with his navigation partner, Stanley. Stan had been with him from the start, a good ten years now. He trusted his judgement and expertise. He had a keen mathematical mind and always seemed to be able to find the quickest route, if not always the easiest or most serene, sometimes ignoring potential hazards like back eddies of grav waves or sources of magnetic disturbances. He was tough besides smart and cared little of turbulence, calling the others who complained by disparaging names we don't need to go into. That's where the skipper came in, to modify the trajectory for as smooth a ride as possible, considering the cargo, unless, of course, he was in a hurry. Then it was pedal to the metal, a straight vector, hold on. But he wasn't now and didn't think he'd ever be again.

Standing behind them, looking over their shoulders at the display, Grip, the lead cargo handler and hold organizer spat out, "Another mining hole."

"Whatdoya expect," shot back Jeeter, the main engineer whose principle charge was keeping the quark-drive functioning; but he also maintained the others along with the captain, an engineer himself. He'd graduated from one of the finest schools in all of Eurasia and could've been working his way up the ladder in just about any corporate firm of his choosing. But he found he didn't care for the sedentary life; either cooped up in an office building on Earth or on one of these Godforsaken mining communities. Too drab and depressing for him. He liked this wayfaring life, this mobility, the everchanging scenery of sights and people. He'd been onboard for only three years but was a keeper; he felt at home. The Dragonfly wasn't overly fancy by any means -- no luxury liner, to be sure -- but it wasn't a bottom feeder either.

Armand, a French-Canadian, short of stature but all muscle -- Grip's assistant -- rumbled onto the bridge. On some freighters, crew discipline was rigorously enforced, most of the captains being ex-military. Not the case on the Dragonfly; it was more like family. Besides, these guys had done some pretty shady deals in the past and gotten away with them, so no one pretended to be innocent. Irreverance and a disdain for authority colored their world.

They punched in a course on the auto-nav and the skipper contacted the mining outfit, making final arrangements for delivery at their warehouse. Docking protocol was standard, even way out here in no-man's land. He then contacted the Port Authority asking for specifics. Traffic was coming and going, nowhere near as busy as on more traveled worlds, but nonetheless, safety demanded obedience to procedure. He was given an avenue of entrance based on projected time arrival, and he in turn replied with the ship's name and calling numbers and what they had on board, their bill-of-lading. Before final approach at the warehouse dock, customs agents and a pilot would board, making sure all was in order, no dangerous animals or weapons or illegal drugs stowed, and the pilot would assist the skipper. This was Wainwright's first time here, so the local knowledge was welcome.

His crew retired to their respective cabins, two men in each. Grip and Armand shared the one closest to the hold area, Stanley and Jeeter in another closer to the bridge. The arrangement had proved amicable as well as practical. Fritz had his own cabin. He related better to robots and computers and so preferred being alone. They had a few things they wanted to conceal, including recreational drugs and personal weapons. Traveling into the badlands of deep space, they were allowed to carry weapons of a sort for protection, but they still preferred to hide their familiars, as they called them. Seldom had a customs man bothered to search cabins, but, they had no idea where they were just now and decided not to take any chances. Pirates roamed the outback in ever increasing numbers, so the security atmosphere might be more radical than usual, especially if they'd had a bad experience with such of late. A ship disguised as a freighter could smuggle in biological or particle weapons small enough to hide almost anywhere. They feared being strip-searched. Wariness was another one of their rules.

Sam stood off to the side, immobile, not talking or offering any helpful advice. This was his normal position when about to welcome visitors to the bridge. His smooth nickle-iron finish lent an air of menace, and internally, nickel-titanium filaments acting as muscle wire contracted when electrically powered and were capable of lifting thousands of times their own weight. But despite his human-like facial features, there was no mistaking him as other than a robot. Wainwright pretended not to notice his presence. He knew he was impressive and even intimidating to most; his straw hat adding an uneasy feeling of aberrance to the picture, as though he might suddenly act on his own. Not a bad touch in a robot who was on your side; it tended to mitigate any arrogance a visitor might bring with him.

They assumed their orbital inception point as a small shuttle from the planet came alongside, waiting for instructions to dock. It all went down smoothly, well practiced on both sides. The pilot entered the bridge, very official looking in a worn and weary kind of way. Cultural differences with respect to language aside, english had long since become the default language of commerce, fluency being a matter of perspective. Content of conversation was also rather standard, so no problem going off on a tangent about the local weather or nightlife. Some pilots demanded to take over flight controls, while others chose to lay back and merely offer directions. This man was one of the latter. While the customs people busied themselves examining documents, licensing, and inspecting the cargo, with the help of Grip, the pilot led them around the planet to their respective docking site at the warehouse in question with Stanley at the helm. No other ship was present so they moved right in. The magnetic agitation caused by the landing engines resonated briefly with the stanchions of the docking bay, but otherwise the immediate surroundings of the warehouse yard and loading dock remained undisturbed. It was all very routine -- by the book -- almost boring in spite of the newness.

The pilot punched through to headquarters a temporary docking allowance of three days, then, along with the customs agents, reboarded his ship and returned to duty station. A boring job ordinarily, but it paid well and offered good benefits, especially when the agents found contraband like strange wines, exotic computer hardware, or illicit videos. Anything that wasn't listed on the ship's cargo manifest was fair game.

Captain Wainwright, Cliff, returned from the company office with instructions as to where to make delivery. He'd have help from their crew, but mostly the job would fall on his. Grip, along with Armand, were in charge of loading and unloading -- materials transfer -- but the rest of the men joined in. All except for Fritz who spent that time checking and rechecking computer systems. No one griped about him not carrying his weight, the computers were everything, they relied on them heavily; without them, it would be impossible. And Sam had tried, long ago now, to help. But surprisingly, his enormous strength and tireless constitution just complicated things. Crews working together get into a rhythm, a sync; timing falls into place; the individuals tend to forget themselves and just move to the groove. But with Sam, he could carry the load of three men and move considerably faster than the mag loaders, so, ironically, the job became way more difficult; missteps were made, confusion took over, tempers flared -- the dance lost its rhythm. So Sam just hung out on the bridge keeping Fritz company. His feelings were no doubt hurt, but with the stoicism of nickle-alloyed robots, he didn't show it.

Cliff stayed around for a bit, overseeing the operation, like he'd done a million times before. His men had the routine down and wouldn't let-up, except for the mandatory breaks called by the warehouse crew, till the job was completed. It fell on him to procure lodging for a couple nights. They could stay onboard easily enough, but the chance to get off the ship for awhile and explore what the town had to offer was a bonus they all looked forward to. As with most other mining operations, the town wasn't much. A few shops and mercantile outfits were strategically rooted along the main street, but were easily outnumbered by bars and whorehouses, mixed in with a few hotels and boarding houses. He wandered until he found the best out on the edge, then zeroed in on the nearest bar.

It'd take a good two days to off-load, then on the third day, they'd be gone. But their departure time depended. It was always a cost-effective idea to try to find something to carry back to Earth, so when he entered the bar that was topmost on his mind. He'd introduce himself to others asking around for return cargo -- derelect machinery, expensive equipment that needed fixing by an Earth-bound company, and of course, second and third scale ores that could more economically be smelted by some home outfits.

But no sooner had he tasted the bourbon, he went off into lala land, thinking about his wife. Like a blanket he'd drape over himself, a protective blanket, keeping him safe and warm against the chill of acceptance and farewell. A dark place of grieving and longing and shame. He'd been brooding for close to an hour -- and drinking right along with it -- when Nomad, Stanley and Jeeter came into the bar. In spite of having radioed Fritz where their hotel was, he was still a little shocked to see them, so encased as he was in his womb of misery. They grabbed him as they passed by and moved on to a booth near the back. They ordered drinks and made a show of removing jackets and bleating fatigue, moaning at all the right places. Captain Cliff smiled. The three conversed among themselves, Cliff sat on the inside of the half-circle booth. They left him be, the warmth of their company and protective positions bracketting him would salve him back into the present. Or at least it usually worked that way. Sometimes, they had to poke him.

"Hey, skipper," Jeeter began, "the wharehouse crew told us a shipment of class 'B' drilling gear and all its necessaries needed to be delivered on Belarius." No sooner had he said this that he, and the others, remembered that's where his wife had gotten killed their last trip out. It'd been such a long time ago, it seemed to them, and they were so exhausted that they'd all forgotten -- up to that moment.

"Skipper, Cliff, I'm sorry man; I wasn't thinking."

Cliff took a sip of bourbon, then said, "It's okay, Jeeter. You know, it might not be a bad idea to go back there now. You know?" He'd never really gotten to the bottom of what happened to his wife with anything resembling satisfaction, overwrought and beside himself with grief and loss as he was, he couldn't think or concentrate well at all, leaving matters mostly to the authorities, people who had a less that friendly view of off-worlders -- Earthers. He took a bigger sip. "How much equipment we lookin' at?"

Stanley replied, "Enough to cover the first floor only, but it sounds like they need it bad on Belarius, so they're willing to pay heavy."

"Well," Cliff said, "maybe we can find something else going that way. Must be four or five planetary systems between here and there."

"Four," interjected Stanley.

Cliff nodded, "Bound to find something. Ask around. I'll head to that wharehouse in the morning and find out about the deal, nail it down if possible, then look around the other outfits for something else, while you guys finish unloadin' and squaring things away. Otherwise, if it's just a lot of talk, we'll try to find somethin' headin' for Earth, as per the drill."

As Armand strode in, Nomad gestured the universal signal to the bargirl for another round. The air and the moment and most particularly -- what they were about to do -- thickened the atmosphere into drinking mode. It was time for the gang to get drunk -- together.

They called themselves the Dragons. There was a synergy about them that seemed to create its own force field, an envelope of potential mayhem. They never looked for any trouble, and they seldom got into any in these out-of-the-way places. But, they could all sense that if indeed they went back to Belarius, trouble might be what they'd find.

The following morning, seriously hungover but nonetheless at his best, the skipper talked up a deal with the overseers of the wharehouse they'd delivered to. They were an unknown commodity in these parts but came with glowing recommendations from the home office. They had the bona fides, in other words. The contract was struck and, after informing the crew, Cliff set about looking for more product going in that direction.

Grip and Armand were busy cleaning up when the skipper came onboard, late in the afternoon. The others were in the mess hall. He walked past them, waving to follow. They gathered around the dinner table waiting for the final word. Cliff appeared glum, but he often did whether he had good news or bad, so that was no telltale. He removed his hat and threw it down on the table, a gauntlet.

"I can't find anything else heading towards Belarius, not till next month."

No one spoke, they knew he had more to say. He paced slowly around, avoiding eye contact, staring at the floor, thinking, or brooding, it was hard to tell. "With what we have to take to Belarius, we can pay our way, and we might be able to pick up something there for the trip back to Earth." That was all he said.

Grip broke the silence with, "It should only take a day to load up the drilling equipment. With help, of course," as he eyed the rest.

"See if you can get it done in less, hire anybody hanging around looking for day-work if need be. I want to be on our way in the morning, first light." With that, he scooped up his hat and strode out for his cabin to sleep off the residuals of the previous night and the day's wondering and negotiating. He wanted to be sharp. He was heading back to the planet where his wife had gotten killed, a place he swore at one time never to visit again. But they could see it wasn't going to be just a sentimental journey to honor his departed wife's memory, no throwing flowers on the river where she supposedly had drowned. Anger seethed just below the surface. It'd been festering there for months, now it would find its outlet.

He was thinking only of himself even though the crew's safety had always been his primary priority. He'd leave them out of it if he could, but knowing these men as he did, suspected they'd have his back no matter what, and in spite of principles, was counting on it. He had no idea what, exactly, he would do when they arrived. Unloading the cargo as quickly as possible to free themselves, of course. But then what? He'd start with the authorites, he decided, that would seem the first logical imperative. Let them know he hadn't put it all in the past. He'd want to know just what happened, had they uncovered any pertinent information since their last report. Their explanation was anything but satisfying, and not only because he refused to believe it. It'd been filled with holes; their story sounded too pat, almost standardized like something you'd tell a naive yokel just to get rid of him. Close the case and move on to more important matters, problems that concerned their citizentry, enough of out-worlders.

Your wife is dead, we can't find her body or that of any of the others who were on that boat. It capsized, no bodies were ever recovered, taken out to sea and eaten by some voraciuos creatures, no doubt, of which there are many in the seas of Belarius, and that was that.

They were supposed to leave that day, that very morning. She wanted to go on one last excursion, who knew when or if they'd ever return to such an out-of-the way planet, especially one that offered so many diversions. Belarius is part mining colony but also has a thriving toursit trade, one of the very few planets in that sector. People came from all over, other systems, so there was that too. It boasted a cosmopolitan air complete with first-rate eateries and hotels. But the authorities didn't care for the influx of foreigners, they were the source of trouble as they saw it, and were less than apppeciated even though it brought in scads of revenue to the locals. For that reason, they tolerated them as a necessary evil, but that was it.

She wanted him to go with her; he wanted her to stay onboard to help ready the ship for take-off. They argued. Stubbornly, as was her wont to be, she chose to go on the sightseeing trip by herself. She promised to take pictures, then left, storming off the bridge in a final huff that the rest of the crew talked about later in the mess. That was the last time the skipper saw her. As far as he was concerned, she died because he hadn't insisted strongly enough for her to stay. And if he'd gone, he might've prevented whatever happened, or died with her, a preferrable outcome to his mind. He even said to her that he wiped his hands of it; if something bad happens, it was on her head. He wasn't imagining she might die, of course, but rather that the trip would prove to be less than pleasant. River boating is not for the timid of heart, contingencies pop-up without warning that one inexperienced in such things can hardly expect. But she was a tough cookie, so he had no misgivings in that area. Should have, he now believed. She was dead and it was his fault, that was his undeniable conclusion.

At dawn they received the pilot, a different breed altogether; one who insisted on a hands-on approach. He steered them clear of traffic, running a course only he could see, to the outer rim, then without much of an adieu -- actually with an air of annoyance -- boarded his tiny vessel and returned.

Stanley punched in the set of waypoints. They'd stop at each solar system to reinitialize. That meant the fifth jump would land them so-many kilometers outside the heliosphere of Belarius's sun. Belarius was the third planet out in a system of six, the outer two being gas giants. As there was no Oort-type cloud to deal with, as so many of them have, it would then only take two days at sub-light speed to reach it.

Sam seemed impatient to get on with it. Did he know what they were up to? was on everybody's mind. He'd developed an intuitive side since the accident that the crew wasn't sure they wanted him to have. But eccentricities were not uncommon, so they just accepted it. He took his seat in the flight chair and quickly examined screens, toggles, and maintainence checks. The others slid away to their respective chambers. Minutes later, Sam made the announcement; final check on all crewmen; then the jump.

Cliff stood in his chamber thinking, enduring the stresses and strains as the ship went in and out of jump mode. He was used to that so gave it no thought. Rather, he attempted to rationalize what he was about to do, but was having quite of bit of trouble focusing. All he knew or could conjure in his brain were emotions. Emotions took the place of thought. Pain, longing, sadness, and anger. He fought to steel himself against the inevitable onslaught of memories, already feeling his heart pounding, going heavy and numb. He was going back to the scene.

Finally, the buzzer sounded. A cold shudder rippled through his body. That didn't take long at all, he thought.

After a quick shower the men went to the mess; he, to the bridge, replacing Sam in the captain's chair. Stanley came in with two sandwiches and coffee. They took a few minutes to just sit and eat and relax. Then, they got busy figuring out the best route in to Belarius. Two days, maybe two and a half -- depending -- it always depended on what navigational hazards they might run into in these unknown waters. On the way in with Sam driving, he had the men make sure the cargo was set to be off-loaded quickly so they could turn to other matters, the real reason they were there. After they got clear of business, he meant to take his time, check things out, get a hotel -- the normal stuff. Take it easy, at first.

Their approach went smoothly; a good omen, he thought. He reached for omens of any kind, his senses tuning themselves for any eventuality. After contact with the Port Authority, they were boarded by the usual contingent of pilot and customs officials, routine inspection followed. The pilot directed Stanley to the proper landing dock which also went off without a hitch. Cliff checked in at the warehouse office and arranged for delivery. Because they were jammed-up at the moment, they wouldn't be able to off-load till the next day, sometime in the early afternoon, in fact. Cliff didn't like this. Not a good omen, or was it? The flow was everything right now, how things moved along. Delay might be good.

After finalizing the contract -- cargo inspected by the company man in charge of such things -- he received a partial advance and with that, left to find lodging. Where was important now, not just any hotel would do. He wanted to blend in with the tourist crowd but not too ostentatiously. He picked a place off the beaten track but yet within easy distance of the main police headquarters.

The men fanned out, spreading through town, each going to a different set of bars. Not the tourist bars, they chose instead the type frequented by men who might know something of the skipper whose boat Elizabeth had been on that fateful day. Even Fritz got involved, it was no time to be anti-social. In fact, it was he who discovered, through a chance conversation with an older man, a long time resident of the river area, that something was amiss about the whole tragic accident. He started off by asking around for anyone who took tourists out on excusions, pretending to be interested, presenting himself, under an assumed name, as a vacationer on leave from his Earth-bound company. Ironically, people who are generally reclusive have less problem than most adopting phony identities.

When Fritz first brought up the incident, saying he'd heard about it through the travel agent who booked him -- travel agents don't want their regular customers taking unnecessary risks, he pointed out -- the man snickered into his beard, then took a long draw on his drink. Not an appropriate response, Fritz thought. But, he'd met all kinds in the years he'd traveled the Dragonfly, so it might be normal for this guy. His clothes were old and dirty and torn in places and he smelled of fuel and booze and whatever he'd eaten last, so Fritz assumed he might loosen his tongue for a few drinks. He offered to buy, good-naturedly, as any touritst might when seeking information from a local. He didn't wish to seem too interested, as though it were a personal matter, so he played dumb but nonetheless, curious; it was just friendly conversation.

Into the second, or third, drink Fritz surprised himself with how talkative he could be, circling around the incident in a general way -- how many accidents a year, how many deaths, how dangerous it was, and so forth -- then veering back ever so delicately but with growing passion despite his effort to quell his emotions. He'd known Elizabeth as a friend who actually took the time to talk to him; she was warm and outgoing but not to all the crew. She didn't care for Jeeter's arrogance or Grip's harsh language, so he felt determination to find out what the hell went down growing in his heart. If he'd been Grip, he knew, he'd already have the man out back in the alley threatening to kill him if he didn't talk. But Fritz was not Grip, and he believed he was coursing the right tack.

By the fourth drink the old drunk had let it slip that the skipper of the ill-fated riverboat was still alive, though he no longer plied his trade. He had moved to the other side of the island into what the man referred as the Faraways. Fritz asked what he meant by that and was told it was where the rich folk lived, a self-enclosed community. He waited while the man ranted about their extravagant lifestyles, what with their yachts and expensive mansions and their arrogance when they came to town. But he never saw his friend again, which he apparently lamented, if only because the guy owed him some money from long ago that he never expected to see.

The old man laughed, and owing to the drink and the obvious bitterness he felt about his long-lost buddy, he began to spill his guts, although in a whisper, circumspection being the rule of the day on this planet. It turned out, his friend had recieved a considerable sum for staging the accident. His boat hadn't been much to begin with, so its loss meant little compared to the money. Fritz asked about the tourists onboard, what happened to them? The old man turned his way and was about to go on when a large, overbearing type strolled up. His face was grim and pocked-marked, a slight scar showing through whiskers at the base of his left ear.

"Slackjaw," he said, force in his gravelly voice. "I see you've made a friend. What's up?"

Apparently, the old man's whisper carried. He looked up, fear suddenly crossing his weathered features. "Nothin'," he replied, hurriedly. "We're just bullshitin' here. A tourist," he said, thumbing towards Fritz, "wants to know what's going on. Where the action is. You know." He laughed but without much mirth.

"Let the man alone, Slackjaw. Let him find his own entertainment." He continued to stare down hard at the old man until he got the message. He finshed his drink, nodded at Fritz and slapped him on the shoulder as he rose to stagger from the bar.

The reaper stayed put, glaring at Fritz, who now wished Grip and Armand were with him. "I overheard you talking about the riverboat accident, a few months ago. You know any of those people?"

Fritz gathered his strength, anger replacing the nervous flutter he'd felt just seconds before. "No, I didn't know any of 'em. I was thinking about going on one of those trips, so I was interested in who to go with, a name of a reputable, safe skipper. Wouldn't want to end up drowned due to incompetence."

Time meandered by, Fritz wanted to go after the old drunk but saw no way to do it without drawing suspicion. He didn't know for sure that this tough-looking character was police, secret police, but he'd seen enough of that kind on many planets, including Earth, so he took the wary course. Nonetheless, he found himself edging bolder through indignation if nothing else. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, the skipper liked to say.

Spinning his stool to face the reaper, he asked, "Who are you," trying to sound tough. "You a cop or something?"

The man's eyes widened. He wasn't used to this, fear being his usual currency of transaction. But he quickly regrouped, smiled a streak across his grizzly mug, then said, almost courteously, "Enjoy your visit, stranger." As though the effort had been painful, the crease of a smile collapsed; his stone-cast sullen features returning as he strode out, the bow wake forcing others to practically jump out of the way as he made a beeline for the door.

Fritz suspected it was too late to find the man called Slackjaw, but he left to search other bars nearby anyway. As drunk as the man had been, he either wandered only as far as the nearest stool, or, out of fear, went home. Coming up empty, he decided to get the news to the captain right away. Its value was questionable, ambiguous. If the skipper of the riverboat had purposely skuttled his boat, then were the passengers still alive, or had they been skuttled as well? And who had paid for such a thing? And why?

Captain Cliff sat on the edge of the bed in the hotel room he just scored for himself. The other men would share, he didn't care how, they'd figure it out. But they were all on the same floor adjacent to one another, connecting doors essentially making the set of three one large suite with his in the middle. Cargo wouldn't be unloaded till the following day, so he decided to stay put, drink from the selection handily in the room.

It was quiet up here on the tenth floor away from the hectic bar and restaurant street scene far below. It's what he needed right now, to think. He let his mind go blank, let his emotions separate to openness, let himself forget everything. He removed his shirt and felt the ambient temperature; rubbed his hand over the texture of the blanket; smelled the cleanliness of the freshened room. Then memories began to float to the surface. He was a young man, strong and very physical. He worked on the water on Earth, fishing. The seas had been depleted in the early part of the 21st century due to overfishing and pollution. But after the 50-year worldwide moritorium, heavily policed -- many killed -- on all commercial harvesting and strict controls on what chemicals and waste found their way into the seas, fishing, at least on a small scale, had returned.

He loved it, in spite of the misery and hard work it often was. He had fallen in with a group of men, all older than he, who took risks no one else dared. Poaching in government waters was commonplace. He learned from them and grew within. These men had long since left all innocence behind. They worked hard, drank hard and lived completely in the present, uncaring of the dangers, though not recklessly so. They were smart, everything they did was well thought out, planned and timed. They didn't make a fortune by any standard, but that wasn't the point or intention. It was to feel the freedom that comes with making up your own rules.

Sitting on the edge of the bed with a glass of bourbon on the rocks in hand, he closed his eyes and let himself imagine being at sea during a storm, feeling the rain and the ocean's spray on his face, the wind slapping his long hair into his eyes, shoving this way and that. He was there, physically, alone, an outlaw unafraid, open to his surroundings, every pore; the salt of the sea finding its way into his skin, and under it as well.

He sipped bourbon. The memories of youthful wildness drifted away; the kind of man he'd been when no one could cause him doubt, reawakened. They were replaced by the incident from just three months ago, when his wife died and life essentially ended. Wordless thoughts -- thick, viscous -- swirled about, a whirlpool of pain and grief and longing pulling him down. Unresisting, he let himself be drawn along by emotion, spiraling inward, wrapping his soul in its darkened cocoon.

"Elizabeth," he whispered, chest contracting at the familiar sound, tears welling up. Again, louder, he said, "Lizzy." And for the millionth time meticulously scoured through the infinite details of that fateful day, analysing, dissecting events still by still, trying to see how it could've gone so terribly wrong and how he could have prevented it. His men tried to convince him he wasn't to blame. She wanted to go on the river trip; she'd been off by herself before, many times, on many worlds, in rougher places than this. She was street smart and tough, capable. No one could have forseen such a calamity. It was an accident.

He appreciated their attempt, but the helplessness of the situation plagued his soul and would not relent. He didn't want to hear accident. He didn't do something, he knew. The X-factor -- he didn't love enough. Not enough to break through the false skin of restraint he built up over the years, of not choosing his life above all else, holding back, holding back.

For some time he sat, very still, sipping and musing, when there was a perfunctory knock on the door. Fritz, accompanied by Jeeter, Grip and Armand, pushed it open and charged in. It was obvious they had something on their minds and so had no time for the normal courtesies of skipper/crew protocols. They could see what state of mind he was in, of course, they'd seen it for the past three months; it hadn't gotten a whole lot better, but they knew their news would knock him out of it, so they charged in.

Fritz had enlisted the aid of Grip and Jeeter to help search cannery row for the character Slackjaw, searching delapidated domiciles and all the bars around. It didn't take long with such a close-knit group. He was passed-out on his boat, tied up at the north river dock, it's name, the Ariel. They woke him and plied him with more alcohol; he seemed eager to get it off his chest, to divest of a heavy burden. Especially after Fritz told him who he really was, and why he wanted to know. Grip's glowering presence didn't hurt either.

The captain glared, his misery longed for no company, it was a private affair. But they ignored him. Fritz stood directly in front of him, a half-smile brightening his eyes. He held his hands out and pronounced, "Skipper, we got news. It might be good and it might be bad, but here goes." He paused to build suspense, or find the right words. The others stared at him as if to say get on with it. He blurted out, "Elizabeth may not be dead." Then waited.

Cliff sat frozen, his blurry eyes wide with shock and disbelief. His glass almost slipped to the floor. Leaning forward he held out his hand, the gesture demanding more. Jeeter and Grip helped themselves to the bourbon and took seats, Armand sat on the bed near his skipper.

Fritz continued, "I ran into this old fart down by the river. He was about to tell me something when this enforcer guy broke it up before we got too far. He smelled official, some secret arm of the government, you know the type. So the guy ran out. Afterwards I got these two guys," pointing at Jeeter and Grip, "and we went searching and found him on his boat. We interrogated him; he was happy to talk about it." Fritz almost smiled.

"Would you get on with it, Fritz," Jeeter put in.

Fritz looked annoyed at the interruption; he wanted the skipper to get ready, emotionally and otherwise. But, he acquiesced. He pulled up a chair and sat, squaring himself. Lowering his voice, he said, "He told us that the riverboat accident was no accident; the guy sunk his boat on purpose. To cover-up. There were six people on that trip including Elizabeth. All women. One of them was the daughter of their top scientist; a man named Rigel Belmont. I've heard of him; he's big in robotics, military applications. Supposedly he's come up with a new brain, a neural network capable of adapting to new circumstances on its own, to evolve, to function independently.

"They were all kidnapped. The kidnappers took them all. Why would they do that? The police were a part of it; they set it up, according to our informant. Their intelligence organization knew it was going down; probably had a hand in it. This Slackwater, or whatever his name is, didn't know why. He doesn't exactly travel in those circles. But he did know that his friend was unaware of the particulars. He was approached by two of them, three months ago. They didn't have to threaten, just offered him more money than he'd ever seen. They didn't say who they were but it wasn't hard to figure out, apparently, not in that neighborhood. He took his boat to a certain spot down the river and off-loaded his guests to a waitng van. He skuttled his boat and then made his way home. He did recognize Belmont's daughter, however. Hard not to, I guess; she's a celebrity because of her father, but very low key, it sounded like. Why else would a rich girl be going on a low-budget river ride?

"Why they didn't kill him is a mystery. He's nobody. Maybe they will later, or he's already dead. This guy we talked to hasn't seen him for a couple months now. They got drunk and he spilled his guts, what he knew of it. Later, this guy, Slackjaw, I think, read about the accident -- no bodies found -- and put two and two together."

"Why didn't she have a bodyguard?" asked Jeeter. "I don't get it. She's a prety obvious bargaining chip."

Nobody answered. Fritz took a glass of bourbon handed him by Grip. "Cliff," he said quietly, "she may still be alive." With that he took a long pull on his drink, and waited.

Captain Cliff Wainright sat very still, holding his own. He didn't know how to respond. It was like being yanked out of quicksand into a hurricane. Emotions stormed through his soul. It saved him and yet presented an uncertainty he almost didn't want to consider. Was she still alive? Why would whoever did this bother to keep the others alive when they were only after this one person? They were a hindrance, extra baggage. He felt like he was being toyed with. His emotional confusion started to coalesce into rage in the pit of his stomach.

Jeeter broke the silence with, "Looks like ransom, boss. Give us the skinnies on the robot technology, or else."

"Yea," added Fritz. "But who would have the balls? And why? To sell? This government already has the information, so it's somebody else. Could be a free lance group. But,..., if it was sponsored by homegrown fanatics, say, then --"

"Maybe," interrupted Jeeter. "Could be something afoot. Factions wanting to get their hands on top-secret military hardware. Possibly a coup in the offing somewhere down the road. Or maybe it's just spy action for some other world; who knows how infested their intelligence organization is. Only the top boys would be in the loop. I get the feeling it's pretty strict when it comes to that kind of stuff. Whatever the reason, we sure as hell can't chance going to the authorities. Bound to step on toes. And we saw how helpful they were before."

With that reminder, Cliff finished his drink and stood. "Who's on the ship?" he asked, his voice heavy and dry from drink if nothing else.

Grip volunteered, "Stanley's in the wheelhouse; Sam's guarding the door."

"We need more information." He went to the table by the window where the bucket of ice sat and threw a few pieces in. Then poured another drink. "How do you suggest we get it?" Through the window he could see the main administrative headquarters with its tall spirals at each corner looking more like an impenetrable castle than the center for politics, police and bureaucracy. A low growl as from an animal stirred his chest. Turning to rejoin his men, he had his familiar no-nonsense face on; only this time, a mix of hope and hatred gleamed from eyes tired of tears.

No one responded immediately. Although not above taking chances, these were not rash people, usually. Only when they felt the need to act could they be somewhat -- impulsive. An impromptu brainstorming session ensued. Fritz, the computer geek, thought to use the ship's sophisticated system to try to hack into various government databases and networks. They'd be heavily firewalled and encrypted, of course, but he had the ironic advantage of being an outsider, not locked into perceiving the archetecture of their computer technology in the same way as those who devised it. Such things were not universal; quirks and preferences, population idiosyncrasies and individual personality traits wormed their way into the fabric and underbelly of any particular culture's technology, especially when isolated by light years of space. And because of that if nothing else, after several generations, these people had begun to evolve away from the norm. What they considered conventional understanding of the way things are stood out in relief to his mind.

Moreover, he'd combined state of the art computer functioning with his extensive knowledge of robotics, creating a hybrid system with capabilities all its own. Only Stanley, the navigation expert, was able to fathom its peculiar gifts and talents.

And on the other hand, being a major tourist planet, commonalities would also prevail, a homogeneity of user-friendly interfaces abounded. So an amalgam existed. With a mish-mosh like that, Fritz felt fairly confident he could find an entrance, a backdoor, some miscellaneous path unprotected and ignored.

Jeeter, as the resident rocket scientist, thought in terms of outsmarting the adversary, any adversary. It was all just a chess game to him and he had no compunction, moral or otherwise, about using his considerable brain-pan to manipulate the circumstances. And, he could act. His arrogance allowed him to portray anyone in order to get his way without the slightest feeling of empathy for the dimwitted who surrounded him, as he saw it.

Grip preferred force and intimidation. Coercion at any cost to find out what he wanted to know or get. And his side-kick, Armand, could bend two-inch steel pipe like it was rubber. Elizabeth had always been nice to him. Once even baking him cookies on his birthday. He'd kill for her and be happy in the doing.

"You said this guy you talked to said he read about the missing girl in the paper," began Cliff. "I don't get it, something. Why not just rerport she'd been killed along with the others, no bodies recovered? Or, simply, why not say she was kidnapped by parties unknown? Is she still missing? It's been a long time now, three months since the accident. If they kidnapped her for leverage to get classified information, would the government allow this scientist to tell them? Something isn't kosher here. Who reported her missing in the first place? Her father? If he knew she'd been kidnapped, why not just say that? And why take everybody if all they wanted was her? Why even bother to stage an accident? Just grab her off the street."

"This government is very secretive," said Fritz. "They control the newspapers, so I can see where they'd want to suppress news of a kidnapping to avoid conflict if whoever is respsonsible is from another world, an antagonisitc world. Keep everything hush-hush. Otherwise, it could be construed as an act of war by the more right-wing among them."

"So, it looks like that's the case," added Jeeter. "I mean, it's not homegrown. The government itself has no reason to do it because they already have the information. Must be off-world. Or, a free-lance group looking for something to sell on the open market. If that's the case, they probably left, wouldn't be smart to stay hidden here, sooner or later they'd be found what with the network of spies and undercover people, like the heavy Fritz ran into. And if it'd come out that she was lost on this boat cruise with the others, the press would be all over that skipper. And the way he is, it wouldn't take long before he'd crack and spill his guts. Especially if he was taken into one of the police interrogation rooms. He wouldn't last two minutes. So by saying she's missing, they draw attention away from the accident; they happen from time to time. It's a rough river, people take their chances, that's where the adrenaline rush comes in."

"But they must've already done that, you'd think," said Grip. "Somebody had to know she was on that boat, somebody. Besides the kidnappers. And she had to reserve a seat in advance, she didn't just walk down the dock and jump on at the last minute. She's been watched. The kidnappers were looking for an opportunity. They approached that skipper in advance."

"So let's say," added Cliff, "the police or intelligence agencies or whoever knew she was kidnapped and swept it under. But why? And I hesitate to say this but why not kill off the others?"

Fritz quickly responded to that last part. "If they were in a hurry or wanted the accident story to play true, and they did kill the others, they'd have to hide the bodies, all five of them. Not an easy task, especially if the clock is ticking. If someone found the bodies somewhere, the accident story would disintegrate. No, I think they're off-world and they took all of them somehwere, off this planet, at least."

"A thought just occurred to me," said Jeeter, adopting his most mature tone of voice. "We don't know for sure that she was kidnapped. I mean, we're assuming it; it is the most obvious conclusion. But we're basing it on the recognition of her by that skipper and the missing girl story in the paper. Are we making a false conclusion based on coincidental premises? Suppose there was someone else in that group they wanted. Has the scientist, Belmont, been contacted by any of these so-called kidnappers?"

"We don't know," said Fritz. "Can we assume the government had nothing to do with it?"

That was quickly squashed by Jeeter. "No. And I say no soley because of that character who approached you in the bar when he overheard you and what's-his-name talking about it. No, I think they're aware that the accident was no accident. But, the real reason for it, we're just guessing."

A heavy silence descended. The captain walked out onto the balcony; the air was warm, soft, smelling of fruit trees nearby. A light breeze ruffled his hair. He stared off at the administration headquarters, then below at the busy street scene, cars and people milling everywhere, oblivious to their government's secret doings. Nothing particularly uncommon about that, he thought. As he reentered the room he said, "All right, we desperately need clarification. The man to talk to is this scientist character Belmont. We need to find out where he lives and try to arrange a meeting."

Fritz guffawed into his drink. "Skipper, Cliff, he probably has more bodyguards than the Premier."

"I know," said Cliff angrily; frustrated that Elizabeth got caught up in such a mess. That was the real accident. "But we can't just stroll into the police station and start asking questions, trying to get to the bottom of it. Last time they were less than forthcoming. If we'd been thinking, if I'd been thinking, we might have smelled fishiness from the get-go."

"Well," added Grip, "what about this skipper guy. His friend told us where he lives. Out in the area he called the Faraways. I take it that's just a local nickname. But anyway, we can find it. Assuming, of course, he's still alive, which I seriously doubt."

"All right," Cliff said, staring at the floor. "I have an idea. Fritz, you're the roboticist and you've heard of him. How?"

"He's a member in excellent standing of the Intergalactic Robotics Association, as am I, although not as famous. I've read some of his papers; he truly is a genius. In fact, he might need help of an outside nature. We don't know."

"That's the problem. Okay, contact him in that guise. Say you're visiting and would relish an opportunity to speak with the master on robotics issues. Make something up. At the very least, we'll find out if he's entertaining visitors as though everything was normal, or if he's under some kind of house arrest, or protection. They'll no doubt check your documentation. But that's good, you're a solid member. It's a legitimate excuse. And you're from Earth, the home planet. Although the way these out-worlders act, they'd rather not be reminded. But that's the homebase for your association, so it's got to mean something if only to him."

Fritz finished his drink and stood. "I'll go back to the ship and clean-up, call him from there. Although, that might not be possible." He glanced into the wall mirror, then faced back, "What I'd like to do is use their wireless system to hack into their official database. Stanley can help. There might be some reference on a classified file. Dates, times, events. If they had anything to do with it, or at least have the true story, somebody's kept tabs if only to cover his ass."

"Well, if he's walled-off completely -- incomunicado -- we'll have to go elsewhere. Hold off on the hacking for now; let's take this one step at a time, carefully. Grip, you and Armand go find this skipper guy. But be careful, if he's not dead he's probably being watched. Reconnoitre. Take your com-set; call me as soon as something materializes. And don't get caught. Play it close to the chest but be in character, loud and dumb. He's a skipper and so are you. Find a reason."

The three of them nodded and left; Jeeter stayed behind. They sat quietly listening to the sound of traffic far below. After a time, Jeeter said, in that tone reserved for their friendship, "We're going to find her, Cliff. I feel she's alive, somewhere. We have a ship that can go anywhere. We'll find her."

"If she's still alive," muttered the captain, finishing his drink then throwing the glass into the far wall. He clenched his fists, fighting back tears. Rage seethed through his sinews. There would be no attempt to maintain the status-quo on this deal. He would not comply or allow himself to be intimidated or shrugged off. If anybody got in his way, if anybody tried to impede his search for Elizabeth, he would have no pity. And if he got killed in the process, that was all right too. Some things gnaw on a man worse than dying.


Chapter Two


They weren't scheduled to off-load until the following day, mid-afternoon, so they had a legitimate excuse for being idle on this all-too watchful planet.

It was getting onto dusk, street lights were coming on. Grip and Armand had meandered their way to the house of the accident-prone skipper. Standing across the wide tree-lined road, they talked. In front was a horseshoe driveway curving around high hedges blocking a view of the front door. Could be men with guns right around the corner. Why no one at the entrance? They noticed high grass growing in the middle of the dirt drive. They had no plan, not one with finesse in it, at least. They meant to talk to this guy and that was that. Armand took the left entrance about fifty feet away, Grip strode across the road right towards the one they'd been looking at. When he got there, he pulled his plasma-pellet sidearm from beneath his jacket.

Listening intently, he took the grass route up the middle. It got higher as he went. As he rounded the curve, stretched across the center of the door he could see a board or plaque. It was a one-story house with four windows in front and one on the side. He checked the heavy curtains of those he could see for movement. He stopped where he was, waiting for Armand. When he arrived, Grip nodded towards the entrance way. The writing on the sign was unreadable, a language they'd never seen before. Grip put his weapon away but told Armand to stand out of sight while he knocked on the door.

After the third knock he cursed and tried the knob. It was open. Paper scurried down the long hallway; they could see the main room ahead at the back of the house, and beyond, through glass sliding doors, the backyard surrounded by hedges. They quickly searched the other rooms -- except for scraps of packing paper, all were empty. They checked the closets, then went out to the yard.

"Whatever happened here, we missed it," said Grip. "That guy's toast."

"You sure we're at the right address?" asked Armand. "Could be that Slackjaw lied."

"Maybe. We need to find out what that sign says. Let's grab it and get back to the ship before somebody shows up."

As they were about to reenter the house they heard a muted shuffle coming from the front room on the right. They pulled their sidearms. A narrow strip of grass connected the backyard with the front, opposite the room where they heard the noise. Grip motioned for Armand to take it. He crept down the hall trying to remember if the first room on his right connected to the next. He peered around the corner to check it out when a man ran from the front room and out the door. Grip ran after. He heard a scuffle going on as he passed through the doorway. Armand had the man on the ground in a full-Nelson; he wasn't going anywhere. He holstered his gun and approached. "Let him up, Armand."

Armand reluctantly obliged, but held the man behind by both wrists.

"Who are you and what are you doing here?" Grip asked. "And don't try to lie, I'm not in a good mood."

The man glared at Grip, his eyes filled with hate. Then he began to speak in a strange language, revealing at once that despite the rough clothing, this was no man. Her voice reached a shrill frequency as her venom increased, spittle lubricating her recrimination. Grip backed up a step and raised both hands trying to calm her. "Speak english, if you can," he requested, a demand would've been like throwing gas on a fire. She ceased; her outburst suddenly dissipating like a summer squall. Grip shuddered at the reminder of an old girlfriend from home.

"Can you speak english; I have no idea what you --"

"Of course not," she interrupted. "You are of ignorance, one of them, the cruel ones." She tried freeing her hands, nothing doing. Defeated, she stopped moving and hung her head. "What are you going to do with me," she asked, quietly but with firmness in her words.

"Nothing," Grip almost stuttered. "Who are you and what are you doing here? And calm down, for God's sake."

"Let me go, first."

Grip nodded and Armand released her. She stood half-expecting to be hit. "Now, please, what the hell is going on? Who are you? Let's start with that."

She looked up into his eyes, then said, "You are not secret police?"

"Do we look like police," spat an incredulous Grip.

"They can look like anyone. Let me ask you, then: What are you doing here?"

Grip saw only one way out of this -- the truth, mostly. "Suppossedly, the man who lives here staged an accident with his boat three months ago that ended in the suppossed death of a good friend. But, we've found different." He figured that was enough. "What do you know about it, and why are you here?"

She pointed to the sign. "See that," she said. "It's in ancient Sentorian. But the men who wrote that are not of Sentoria, they are here, of here. It says: Brothers of Sentoria."

"How do you know Sentorian, that planet's half a parsec away?"

"My father, he's from there. And this is his house, or was. They took him away two months ago. I come to watch, to see who comes. I must find him and I know the police have taken him." She started to cry.

"We need to find out what happened to the people on his boat," said Grip. "Did he purposely skuttle it? Do you know about the kidnapping?"

"Yes, yes, that was father's doing. He was not proud of it. They offered him money but he refused. Then they threatened to hurt me. I am all he has left, my mother dead five years now. He had to relent; it is his way. He is a good man. If he knew they'd be killed, he wouldn't have done it."

"Were they killed? All of them?" asked Grip, bracing himself.

"I do not know, for certain. After my father went home that night, they contacted him to give him money and we never saw them again." She dried her eyes with an end of her billowy shirt, then removed her hat freeing long black hair.

"Contacted by who? The kidnappers?"

"Yes. They knew my father from Sentoria. They were of there."

"So what happened to your father? Why'd they take him, the police, I mean?"

"They find out. I told him to leave, to go far away from here. But he just laughed. My father is a fool. But I must find him, if he is still alive."

"So you don't know what they did with the people they kidnapped? These Sentorians."

"No. But when they visit, they talked of how much they missed home and couldn't wait to get back, soon. After they give my father money, they must have left. How? I don't know. Maybe they have their own ship."

"Probably, most likely. If you had your own ship for such a job, where would you park it?"

She thought for awhile, then said, "Between this town and next to the west is an old landing bay, a ship of small size could moor there, unseen, many do. But only for a very short time." She paused, then said, "Yes, where the van picked them up -- my father told me -- is near that landing bay by the forest road. Not a long drive. That must be it."

"Why were you here today? We didn't exactly plan being here ourselves."

"I watch. People tell me men ask around for my father's home. So, today, I come."

"But," Grip almost laughed, "what did you expect to do?"

She held her face in her hands. "I don't know what else to do. I can't go to the police; they are the ones who took him."

"Well, it's a good thing it was us and not them. Do you live in a safe place? They'd probably like to get their hands on you as well."

"I live with different friends, one maybe two nights, then move on."

"I think you better come with us, then. Back to our ship; meet our skipper and talk. Maybe we can find out about your dad. We have some smart people onboard."

She looked reticent, uncertain, like a scared cat. But fatigue clearly showed through her independence. "Don't worry, you're safe," Grip said, no-nonsense in his voice. "You got a name?"

"Vega," she half-smiled.

"Okay, Vega. This here is Armand and I'm Grip."

With that he turned on his heel and headed down the drive under a full head of steam. If she knew about them asking around for her dad's address, he thought, the police probably do too.

*************

Meanwhile, on the Dragonfly bridge, Fritz tapped into the local communication directory looking for the scientist, Rigel Belmont. A citizen of his stature would no doubt have his calls screened through a filtering program, a question and answer test relegating winners and losers. Once found, Fritz punched the number into the radio-phone intended for local use, and waited.

Stanley busied himself setting up a temporary computer account, a courtesy afforded all visitors. He familiarized himself with various protocols, downloading a list of area servers. Once logged in, he tracked around to the other side of the planet searching for the most obscure and least used portal. If necessary, as an added precaution, they would go through several service providers to cover their tracks, adopting different simulated personas at each.

Practically all planets engaged in collaborative efforts: trade, tourism, scientific ventures, mining, military agreements, etcetera, based their computer systems on the theory of universal computation, language being the only real variable. One type of molecular computation, prevalent since the mid 21st century, entailed autonomous formation of complex nano-structures, that is, the self-organization of organic molecules. DNA processing of this type affords all the characteristic features possessed by the biological genome, such as: massive parallel processing, gene splicing, self-organization, self-replication, heredity, evolutionary processes encoded in single-strand DNA sequences -- restricted at plasmid terminals -- and self-assembly plus transformation, to highlight the most significant. Accordingly, this biological context also allows for possible and unexpected mutations, resulting in breakdowns and crashes within the afflicted component, or, worse-case scenario, the entire system. In order to regulate and prevent this, however, extensive and deep redundancy is built in. The systems are therefore considered robust.

Computation by the autonomous assemblage of molecular structures can occur as a routine procedure, either generating a preset pattern, or, as the response to a specifically designated algorithm. An identity.

Because we're dealing with organic molecules, which communicate within cells and externally through cell membranes via proton transfers, quantum effects kick in. Hence, parallel processing is accomplished by the superposition of all possible configurations running at once, any one of which can be measured-out by imposing suitable restrictions or boundary conditions. Identities by group symmetries can therefore shift in a nano-second.

As with the natural organism, a hierarchy of structures exhibits individual attributes at each transition plateau. On the cellular level, we have: signal pathways -- the computer's metabolism -- interconnected through bifurcation nodes, composing a compact, countably dense field. As such they are able to transfer information in all dimensions synaptically and simultaneously. Hiding embedded within the fibers of such a field, an infinitesimal nano-scaled intruder, surfing on the superposition wave of all possible nucleotide sequences, would be impossible to detect -- if you knew what the hell you were doing.

Fritz paced the bridge while the com-link buzzed. After the third buzz a voice informed him that Rigel Belmont was not available but if he left his name, the nature of his business and how to contact him, etcetera. Fritz left the message that he would be here for only a few days, was a long-standing admirerer of the scientist and would appreciate an audience to discuss his latest paper on robotics. He said he acted as the secretary for the Robotics Association so whatever he wished to comment would be passed on to the other members at their next meeting. It was an interview of sorts, in other words. Fritz couldn't see how he could ignore such a request. Brilliant men like Belmont usually came with egos the size of the Red Spot on Jupiter.

He took his com-link and went to the mess hall. He didn't think much of this approach; he was wasting his time. It would be better spent helping Stanley. Between the two of them, he was certain they'd find out what they wanted to know; presuming, of course, information pertaining to the incident was somewhere on the system. But how could it not be? You don't kidnap the daughter of the most prestigious scientist on the planet and have it ignored as inconsequential. If that is, in fact, what transpired.

But, he had to admit, Rigel Belmont held the key to clarifying the situation. If his daughter had indeed been the target of the mass kidnapping, for purposes unclear, he would have most assuredly been contacted long ago -- why else kidnap her -- and he would know, probably, where she and the others had been taken. But, because she is not presently on-planet, what could have happened? Did the government refuse to allow him to negotiate a deal? And whether or not the others -- Elizabeth -- were still alive, how could he know?

His com-link, laying on the table, buzzed, startling him out of his analysis. A woman's voice, serious and suspicious sounding, but nonetheless pleasant, said, "Mister Fritz?" He affirmed; she continued, "Why do you wish to speak with Doctor Belmont?"

Not missing a beat, he replied, "I'm here as a passenger on a freighter. The Asssociation had been anticipating a ship going to your lovely planet for some time. The opportunity was too much to pass up. So, as the secretary and publicist, I elected to come along in the hopes of interviewing the renown Doctor Belmont. We sent a message by subspace a month ago. Did you ever receive it?"

A long pause, followed by a dower, "No, we did not. You say you represent the Robotics Association? Surely an interview could have been conducted by subspace. Why the personal appearance?"

Fritz hesitated, trying to think of a bona-fide acceptable reason. But instead simply told the truth, "I have longed wished to personally meet Doctor Belmont. He is, how shall I put this, a hero in the industry. His papers are a mandatory part of the curriculum in any first rate university on Earth. Is there some problem with scheduling? I can arrange to come any time convenient for the good Doctor. It's entirely up to him."

Another longer pause. "Doctor Belmont is not seeing anyone at this time. He is unduly stressed over personal matters and does not wish to be disturbed."

Fritz never took no for an answer, and now definitely was not the time to begin. "Dear lady," he began, a touch patronizing, "the Intergalactic Robotics Association has no intention or deisre to add to Doctor Belmont's stress level. However, I think a brief interview, conducted in a pleasant environment to his liking, the issues of which would pertain only to matters within the purview of the Association, may serve only to assuage his stress. They are not of a personal nature. I am not representing some Earth-bound tabloid seeking a feature article. Personal interaction would better allow me to frame questions and respond to nuance that a subspace list of questions can never do. Our next publication comes out in a few weeks. We'd like to have it edited and prepared by then."

He knew his insistence might very well close the door with this woman who quite clearly wished to protect the privacy of Belmont, but he couldn't let himself be overrun. He had information they needed, and that was that.

"Mister Fritz, I'll see what I can do. I don't believe Doctor Belmont would want the Association to think he considered it beneath him. I'll speak with him about it and get back to you as soon as possible."

"Very well. But, I've only two days here, so, please, do your best."

She hung up; no good-bye or indication of when she might return the call. Fritz bounced the com-link across the table-top, and jerked to his feet. "Goddamnit," he said. Standing behind him was Sam, staring with his red beady eyes, an approximate look of concern plastered on his titanium face. Over his shoulder, Fritz said, "It's okay, Sam." Turning to face him, taking in the contrast of hard, yet malleable, iron-nickle body radiating obvious warm feelings, he asked, in his quiet voice reserved for Sam, "Do you know what's going on?"

Sam nodded in the affirmative. He was a strange robot, always seeming to be aware of whatever concerned the rest of the crew as though he found it important and imperative to be kept in the loop. Since the incident that altered his personality -- or gave birth to it -- he'd noticeably become rather protective of everyone, exhibiting feelings, especially towards Fritz who he considered not only caretaker, but also friend. In fact, most of his conversations -- you could call them that -- occurred between the two of them. As Fritz stood gazing at Sam, an idea popped into his head. The robot's newly engendered and budding personality could be passed off as genuine robotics technology, technology of a sort no other robot possessed.

He retrieved the com-link off the floor and redialed. This time he was patched passed the answering machine, apparently he'd been given special status. After two buzzes, he heard the familiar voice, "Yes, Mister Fritz?"

"I have an idea." She had not identified herself, he suddenly became aware. Was she Belmont's personal secretary, a house employee, or, was she government? Wishing to appear naive, he pretended everything was normal, so he resisted asking. "With me is my own personal robot, a class 9000-G. It's no doubt more sophisticated then what I've seen thusfar on your planet. If I were to bring him along, I feel confidant Doctor Belmont would find examining him a satisfying experience. It might even trigger an innovative or creative idea. What do you think?"

He heard her breathing as he waited. Eventually, she said, "Just a moment, Mister Fritz." In the background he heard low voices talking. The other was a mail voice, somewhat irritated by the whole matter, but finally calming. She returned with, "Yes, Doctor Belmont will see you. I'll send an address and time to your phone as soon as that's settled. Good-bye." She hung up again without waiting for his sign-off.

Okay, he thought, now what? Am I supposed to wait, monitor my com-link? Frustrated, he left the mess accompanied by Sam. He had another idea, more fruitful, perhaps. When he got to the bridge, Stanley was still working his way through the labyrinth of Belarius's computer network. And by the muffled sounds of deep cursing, without much luck, apparently. Stanley welcomed the help and slid Fritz their temporary account numbers and password. Sitting off to the side in front of another work station, Fritz got busy trying to hack into Doctor Belmont's phone records. They'd probably be encrypted, but they had state-of-the-art security programs designed to crack such things. It wasn't long before he found a backdoor into the communications system. It was a jumble of voice, text, video, and holgraphic formats each demanding a different protocol and password to separate and explore. Again, he discovered a hole in their firewalls, probably put there as an emergency measure by whoever programmed it. It was the conventional procedure; a system this convoluted might seize up preventing front door access.

It was uncommon to archive voice messages, but this system was huge and the government intrusive. Or, thought Fritz, the custom may be reserved only for a select list -- that sounded more likely. And Belmont was on the list, as were all the scientists on this planet. He found dates and times going back two years. He zeroed in on the day of the kidnapping. Wearing earphones, he sat back and listened. It was the usual traffic, ordinary conversations of a social nature, as well as other scientists discussing projects, findings, problems, ideas, and personal difficulties with fellow scientists. Being a scientist himself, he couldn't help but jot down a few interesting technical things he heard. But the following day Belmont made several calls, anxiuosly asking people -- friends of his and his daughter's, no doubt -- if anyone had seen her. Eventually, he phoned the police. He was an important citizen, a prime mover and developer for the military's expanding arsenal of robotic's hardware. He had his fingers in just about everything, so they sounded concerned, deeply.

Fritz had assumed, based on his conversation with the notorious Slackjaw, that the police were somehow in on it. But, maybe not the front lines, the first tier, just the higher-ups. Made sense; they were as much in the dark as he was. So their interest was genuine, he concluded. They promised to be out at his place immediately, to send someone, an agent, several agents, men to watch the house and protect him. Why, he wanted to know, did they think he needed protection? Just a precaution, they said, we can't be sure what's going on, better safe than sorry, and so forth.

Fritz let the sequence of calls continue. Belmont spoke with colleagues voicing his concern over his daughter. She was missing, but where and why were unknown. Finally, the day after, he received a call from a morbid-voiced stranger. Fritz perked up. The voice, thick with accent, told him that his daughter was with them -- whoever "they" were -- she was safe -- for now -- and would be returned if he did exactly what they requested. What? he wanted to know. The reply was to wait for further instructions -- not by communication link -- it would come in the mail in the form of a holographic light cube. He would have proof that they indeed held his daughter and the conditions for her return would be explained. That was that, the voice hung up.

Fritz closed the link and swiveled towards Stanley. Busy churning his way through the intricacies of the vast molecular sea of nucleotide sequences, searching for entrance points to databases unknown, he, nonetheless, caught Fritz's movement out of the corner of his eye. "What?" he barked, annoyed but interested.

"We have corroboration," Fritz stated flatly. "She's been kidnapped. But the call I heard was a good three months ago, just after the incident with the boat. So, there's no telling what's happened since." He stood to pace the deck. "I have to see him, Doctor Belmont," he said, irritation rising. "We have to find out."

"Why not just go there with Grip and Armand. Force your way in, if necessary. Confront the man. Make him talk like you did that drunk."

"I don't think so, Stanley. He's probably surrounded by a small army. And he's not a drunk. It's,..., complicated."

Stanley spun his chair to face Fritz, grabbed his coffee cup, then spat out, "What the hell doya mean -- complicated. We're trying to find out about Elizabeth, man. So go to his house and question the son-of-a-bitch." He then took a sip.

Conversations between these two raging intellectuals usually got right to the point. Stanley was extroverted in the extreme, Fritz was reclusive in the extreme. What they had in common was the line that separated them, and that's where they met.

Fritz ran his hand through his hair while staring at the floor, looking for something in his head. "This scientist guy is at the top of the food-chain when it comes to military value. Think -- Archimedes or Leonardo Da Vinci."

"Who? What the hell do they have to do with it? They're dead."

"All right, yea, I know. I'm waiting for her to call back."

"When's that gonna be? Tomorrow? Next week? After we unload tomorrow we have to either leave or find another place to moor. It would be nice if we could wrap this up soon, like today. There's 36 hours in the day here. Plenty of time. You need to charge into it, be bold, make assumptions, pretend to be ignorant of convention. That shouldn't be a problem for you." Holding his hands out in frustration, he finished with, "Something, Fritz." Turning back to the computer, "Do that which you know."

"How ya' doing with that, by the way?" Fritz asked, wanting to change the subject for the moment.

"I don't know," Stanley half-moaned. "I've gotten through several encrypted layers. They're insulated from one another. Shields within shields. Membranes of passage. I am a virus, a nanite, a leaf on the wind. Persistence, my friend, persistence will get us through."

Sam had been standing off to the side taking it all in, as usual, not offering comments, also as usual. But suddenly he approached Fritz and tugged on his sleeve. He then proceeded out to the hallway. "Mister Fritz," he began, "I have a suggestion." He paused long and hard. Normally, Fritz would step in at this point to wave off any suggestions. But not this time; he waited. Sam stared red-eyed into Fritz's pale blues, "Let's go, sir." Without hesitation, the two left the boat to borrow transit. Fritz was half-hoping for this -- direction.


Chapter Three


Heading for the ship, Captain Wainright and Jeeter left the hotel as dusk was beginning to settle, a couple of hours after the rest of the gang had departed. Cliff needed the familiar intimacy of his private space to think clearly; Jeeter had the idea to fake an engine malfunction, in case they needed an excuse to stay longer, so he set about jury-rigging the appearance of just such an emergency. He also wanted to go through his store of personal weapons, make sure everything was in proper working order. He was very meticulous that way. Not all field rocket scientists carry plasma-pulse assault rifles with laser scope and heat-seeking, armor-piercing bullets. It was one of the reasons why he didn't fit into the corporate world. His usual contempt for people carried over into a certain innate willingness to kill those who'd wronged him. No questions asked, no remorse, no hesitation. Kidnapping Elizabeth was a mistake and fell into the category of being wronged, as he saw it.

Professionally, he was a brilliant, resourceful man -- had practically rebuilt their aging quark-drive unit single-handedly. Personally, however, his life conformed to a landscape of simple feelings: colors sharp, contours crisp, slopes smooth. At times of stress, he'd remember things like when a child playing with toy soldiers in the backyard dirt. It brought him down to earth and swept away all the intellectualisms he'd encountered growing up.

His skipper's wife had been stolen, he meant to help get her back, and whoever did it would have to pay. Simple.

The skipper sat in his quarters. Elizabeth's pictures were all about him, his favorite sitting on the end table next to the bed, their bed. He held it, looking into her eyes, feeling the wamth of his love and the pain he'd gone through. But now, with a chance she might still be alive, he brushed the agony aside as self-indulgent and unnecessary. Lies and deceit had put him in that hell; he would not let that go unpunished. But first, he had to find his Lizzy.

He held her picture in his two strong capable hands and promised he'd find her, said it out loud. With that he took a deep breath and laid down. He needed to let the bourbon work through and to collect his thoughts, to think and plan. Everything had to be done correctly, with no misgivings or shortcomings. Those days were over.

*************

Grip, Armand and their current charge, Vega, drove to that end of town where their ship was moored, still waiting to be off-loaded. Grip noticed fear ripple across her features as they passed through the gate of the company-warehouse. He waited until they were safely inside Dragonfly before asking about it. She replied that she'd seen unmarked police cars around the outskirts of the fence surrounding the loading dock. Two she knew by sight, the others, standard issue.

Had they seen her, he asked. She shook her head, said she didn't know but it looked like their ship was being watched, so they probably had. Nosing around about the man called Slackjaw had definitely rang the bell. And no doubt he had visitors after they left. Grip showed her to a spare cabin reserved for the occasional passenger and bade her clean-up and rest. But first he took her to the mess hall, she looked hungry. After introducing her to various gizmos and the refrigerators, he left her on her own.

Grip and Armand went up to the bridge to see what the hell was going on. Stanley gave him an update, ending with not knowing where Fritz and Sam had gone. He could only guess. On a pad next to Fritz's computer was the address of Doctor Belmont. Grip couldn't contain himself, that is, he had to do something, not just stand around waiting. He didn't know the skipper was onboard and even if he had, he wasn't in the mood to ask for advice. The presence of the surveilance crew outside pissed him off. He checked his plasma pistol, threw a jacket on and, together with Armand, left. He had a seaman's feeling the weather was going to get downright shitty soon, sooner than anyone thought.

*************

Fritz drove around the block while Sam scrunched, his hat pulled down over his ears-holes. It was a two-story white house with two columns holding up their end of a porch-roof that centered half the length of the front. Curiously, there was no gate or fence. The driveway horseshoed around a well-manicured lawn about fifty yards across before ending in a border of bushes and flowers. Well back from the road -- a couple hundred yards -- he could see no way to enter without being noticed. And by whom?

He pulled over to the other side of the road and shut-off the car they borrowed from the warehouse foreman. Sam peered over the edge of the door, trying to make himself small, an impossibility in anyone's universe.

"Whatdoya' think, Sam? It's your play." Fritz was letting out the rope. He had no idea, except to just walk up there and knock on the door; assuming, of course, they didn't get shot for their boldness. Sam opened the door and stepped out. The thin chrome veneer melded to his iron-nickle body took on a greenish tinge in the fading light.


To Be Continued...