The Good and the Bad


Brian W. Antoine

Bob Kirkpatrick

February 24, 1994

Chapter One

Insectus Dementia

"Lythandi, course please?" I said. The Sunbeam was free of the station, and I was setting coordinates for a hyperspace run to Meenzeii.

"Lying on" she replied.

"I think you meant 'laid in'. Ok, let's get this show on the road." The controls for the new 'Beam were the same as I was used to on her predecessor. "Stand by" I said, and engaged the engines. A quick setting and the stars outside the viewport faded and the ship began to accelerate.

"Bob. What are you doing?" asked Penny.

"Huh? I'm heading us to Meenzeii."

"Then why are we in reverse, and did you know you were on a collision course with Neptune?"

"All stop!" I jabbed the control facia and the engines went off-line. "What the hell?" The stars reappeared in the viewport, and we had traversed the solar system's diameter by about three fourths. Sensors showed that the planet Neptune was indeed astern of us, coming in off starboard. "Confirm your coordinates, will you Lythandi?"

"Lythandi's numbers are correct, the engines are trying to press us for the right amount of time and thrust, but they're reversed" interrupted Penny.

Brian and I yelled at the same time. "Jab!"

"And this is the pussy that designed a lot of this tub?" said Dave.

"What you mean pussy, Food Chain?" asked the old gunner, standing. Brian swung 'round in his chair.

"What do you mean, 'tub?'" he said.

"Uh, figure of speech. Sorry" said Dave. His voice cracked a little.

"Talk pussy you have no figure" grumbled Nek.

"Pardon me," I said. "But I don't suppose that we ought to do something about this. I mean, this is all very entertaining, but..."

"Is fix!" screeched Jab over the ship's comm. "Wire backward. Ok now."

"Damn. Stu... uh, --the engineer can't tell the red wire from the black one? This just gets better."

"Hey Dave, give the cat a break" I admonished. "The cats are mostly color blind."

"What? You have an engineer that can't see in color?"

"Most felines can't. The spectrum of radiation they see with is up above ours. They can see into infra-red, and while they can't really _see_, they can sense some of the low ultraviolet."

"Can find dinner in dark easy" grinned Nek at Dave. "No can hide."

"That's an excellent talent you guys have. Sure. I wish I could see that well. heh heh" said Dave. His eyes were a little wider than usual and fixed on the old gunner.

"Good attitude, dude. --Jab, you all set?"

"Is ready."

This time the Sunbeam darted into hyperspace in the right direction. Everything was automatic so there wasn't a big need for me to stay on the bridge. I went back to engineering to talk to Jab about my new ship. It was tucked up into the belly of the Sunbeam. The lower engine array and sensor platform protruded, allowing them to be used as auxiliary equipment for the 'Beam.

Considering the luck we'd had on our previous forays into space, I wanted to be sure that my new craft was going to work properly. I felt even more strongly given the polarity snafu on the main ship's drive. Jab insisted that all was well, but I insisted too, and so we made our way to the docking jig to take a look.

The cabin was luxurious compared to my other ships. The seats were all semi-supine, except for the usual Meenzal saddle that Jab would use. I took my chair at the main console, and started up a systems check. When I pressed the engage button, the ship was ejected from the Sunbeam immediately. We dropped into normal space.

"Good job, cat. --Sunbeam, this is Anarchy" I said, engaging the comm.

"Not much of a radio test, Bob" answered Brian. "I'd hope that it would work at this range. What are you, a couple hundred feet away?"

"Uh, no. And we're getting further all the time. Running a diag caused us to be launched."

"Not according to the panel here."

"If you don't believe it, I suggest you look at the belly bay."

Brian switched the forward viewer to show the docking area for my ship. He sighed loudly. "All stop. Jab, you have armor duty."

"Not my fault. Furry make belly dock."

Brian looked at Kalindra, who shrugged and smiled. "What do you want to do?" he asked, turning his attention back to the comm.

"I guess I'll see if this turkey flies, I guess. We already have you plotted, the sensors are working really well. Got a nice picture of the 'Beam on the display." I took us off quiescent state and brought power up to normal idle power.

"You should meet us in about two minutes at..." Brian cut himself off. The Anarchy appeared off her port beam.

"The jump engine works" I said. "At least at this distance it does."

"Well, we need to do some more testing of the Sunbeam, better in normal space than hyper. You may want to check yours out too."

"True." I wheeled the Anarchy around and ran it through its paces. It was working well --better than I expected. "Well, Jab. It did everything else, how about a little target practice?"

His answer was to bring the weapons system on-line. I scanned for some debris to target and found a small asteroid almost immediately. "Fire a torp, Jab" I said. There was the slightest of thuds from above us and a blue-white projectile sparkled out towards the rock. When it closed on the chunk, a burst of yellowish orange light balled out, obscuring the asteroid. When it faded, the rock was gone.

"Read dust where target was" said Jab. The corners of his mouth were turned up. "Find bigger target?"

That took longer. We had to search a while to find something bigger. After twenty minutes we found another rock. This one was about a fifth of the size of the Terran moon. I brought the ship around, and Jab hit the phalanx of weapons on the wingmass of the ship. The jarring was a little heavier this time, and I told Jab to make a note to adjust the inertial compensators.

Being struck by super velocity charged particles and a plasma bolt array was way too much for the asteroid. Like the other, it gave up too. This time there was no pyrotechnics --there was no explosion. The rock just broke itself into a billion pieces and joined the other stellar particles that inhabited open space. We tracked some of the pieces as they flew off with our wide scan sensors. We could see the energy blossoms from Sunbeam appear and fade. "Looks like Brian is doing some weapons tests too" I said.

After another hour, we called Sunbeam to arrange a rendezvous. It was time to get back on course to Meenzeii. "How did it go?" asked Brian.

"Looked really good to me. We've fired twice, both low power and with positive charge."

"You did better than we did at first."

"Why?" I asked. "What happened?"

"The next time you give Penny instructions, you might be more careful. You told her "blow it to shit."

"Targets... Yeah, so what?"

"The first time we fired, the Sunbeam purged it's toilet tanks and slimed the target."

"Say! That has possibilities!" I chortled. "What a crappy thing to do to someone."

"Oooh! Maybe _you'll_ get armor duty. Cut the shit and get docked."

"I may have to."

"Have to what?"

"Cut the shit. Are you sure all of it hit the target?"

Chapter Two

Shore Leave?

"Oh, Brian, it's for you!" I said sweetly. The comm link light had come on, and I queried the system to see what the subject was. Since it was Jasm, and bore the seal of the Meenzai Empire Council, I was sure this was something for Brian, and told him so.

"Gee, thanks" said the Mage as he turned to his board. When the link engaged, the image of Jasm formed and solidified on the Sunbeam's Bridge.

"We thank you for answer call" said Meenzeii's highest official.

"Good to see you, Jasm. How can we help?"

"It is the Traders you send Meenzeii. They have many trouble with them."

Brian looked at me with his eyebrows up. I shrugged. "What kind of trouble were they having?" asked Brian.

"It is for us trouble come with them" she replied. "Why you send us human like they?" Brian looked at me. His expression told me it was time for me to get involved.

"What did Captain Connor do, Jasm?" I asked.

"Her crew here three hour and need Guard to make safe them" spat Jasm. "They go one Meenzal to other ask if sell weapon for enemy!" It took some doing, what with Jasm being upset, but apparently the long years of living as smugglers had become unbreakable habit. They'd been approaching some of the merchants asking if they wanted to sell arms --weapons which would end up in the hands of those who needed support, even though they opposed the aims of the current government.

"They think the Meenzai have Contras or something" I said to Brian. Those twits didn't know the only enemy the cats have are the Maal. Can you imagine telling a Meenzai that you want to give arms to the Maal?" Brian was still staring at the image of Jasm with his jaw slack. He nodded 'no' slowly.

"Is not all" said Jasm. Her eyes narrowed. "She offer credit to parent of Meenzal --our childs-- for fur of babies. Want sell it some other world." The contempt in her was radiant.

"Oh, shit" I said. "They told the cats they not only wanted to sell arms to the Maal, they also wanted to start clubbing baby Meenzals for their fur." Brian cleared his throat.

"Uh, Jasm. Where are the remains of the Traders?" he asked her.

"Not dead. Need be dead, but not dead. Told us get translators from ship and run to stars. We let go. Better go than stay. If stay, become dish at feast." I related to that. The cats were known for inviting enemies to dinner.

As the meal.

* * *

The suns beat down on the planet without mercy. The temperature was 150 degrees Fahrenheit, and the clear air rippled with superheated thermals, giving anything in the distance a dreamlike quality. The ship stood on its feet, supplying the only shade for hundreds of miles. The crew of Valence were huddled together in the relative coolness.

"Look Cap'm, we didn't know them cats was gonna take such a dim view of us. I mean, we figured the best way to get a load was the same old way."

"It's ok. I made the same mistake. God, the hair on those little teddy-bears was so _soft_. I didn't think an animal would get so huffy about a kit or two. If I was going to be pissed about anything, it would be your not turning the shields on."

"We still showed 'em. They shot at us and everything, and couldn't stop us. We got us a good ship."

"We got us some luck" said Vale. "If they wanted to kill us, they would have."

"But they shot at us, Cap'm."

"Ever toss a rock at a dog that was being a pain in your ass --even though he was already runnin' away? Hell, their warning shots blew out our main drive."

"So what now, Cap'm?"

"I don't know. I guess we have a wait cuz the motors aren't strong enough to get us off this planet. It's either that or try to fix it."

"We don't know nothin' about this. If it was a Volvo-Penta, or even a blown Chev 428 rat we could find a way to get by. But what the hell do we do with a box that glows and says not to open it?"

"Then, we wait" said Connor. She shifted off her haunches and her butt hit the ground with a thuff noise. "We wait and see what happens."

Fifty yards away, a Fawktee was thinking the same thing. The human name would have been Arrow Lizard, the closest translation to Fawktee. It was half lizard and half snake, it's long serpentine body had twin legs and feet at the front, which held up the head for striking and defense. It had fangs which injected a neurotoxin into its victim, which the lizard would eat while it was still alive.

The Fawktee would swim the sands of the planet like a crocodile in a river. It's heavy scales would force the sand to either side and down, so it was very difficult to see coming. Even when the head sat on the sand, as the lizards would do to look around, they looked like small rocks.

"That's it? We just wait?"

"Sure," said Vale. "What could possibly happen out here?"

* * *

"I suppose we better go have a little talk with our friend" I said.

"What do you mean, 'we?' As I recall, this was your idea."

"Yeah, it was. But you do so love to go places."

I got no response, but I saw Kalindra shaking her head to and fro in my peripheral vision. This wasn't going to be a unanimous mission, but we had to go see where my traders were, and once again try to set them on the right track.

"Launch stations?" I asked Brian.

"I guess so" he replied. "Everyone get ready to leave."

"Short visit, eh?" Brian didn't reply. He was back talking to Kal, and from the way he was gesturing with his hands, he was copping a plea of some sort.

* * *

The Fawktee rose half it's length out of the sand. Even with it's back half still buried in the sand, it stood eight feet tall. In one move, it struck Mary, Vale's navigator, took her in its mouth and pulled her under the sand. As fast as the beast showed up, it was gone.

"Everybody in the ship!" screamed Connor. "Everybody in the ship!"

Chapter Three

New Day, Sunshine

The twin suns beat down on the cargo ship, cooking the men and women inside. Vale sat in the forward area in the pilot's couch, watching the big lizard as it searched for something --someone else to eat.

"Look at that son of a bitch" she muttered under her breath. "What next, that thing gonna open the door and come in here?"

"Dunno" said her Number One. "Seems like ever since we left home we been finding smart ass animals that kill us. I wantta go back. 'Least there it was people we had to worry about."

"A lot of people..." Vale reminded him. She looked back out the transparency and saw that the Fawktee had gone away. All that remained was a small moving hillock of sand moving into the distance. "Let's get this can open and get some air in here."

Almost as she spoke, cool air began to emit from the vents in the cabin, and she could hear the gentle whine of the power converter aft in engineering. "I got the environmentals thing goin!" came the call from the crewman who served as engineer. "This thing doesn't have to be running to work!"

"Find the fucking manual and read it, goddammit!" Conner yelled back.

"Don't have to. This computer just told me how to do it."

Vale shook her head and wished for the cool breeze of the Pacific Ocean, although she'd never tell her diminishing crew. It was her job to be a role model. She was the Captain.

* * *

"Brian, there's a light on this panel. Does it mean anything important?" asked Dave.

"It is an emergency signal" Kal answered. "Penny, please identify the source."

"It's our missing friends. Their Emergency Locator works on a Hyperlink. I can give you a fix on... it just stopped."

* * *

"One of these goddamn buttons has to do something!" snarled Darla. She was the newest member of Vale's crew. A street kid for most of her life, she joined the crew when Vale released her from white slavers. It wasn't that Vale was kind. She ran across Darla as she had her crew sink the ship Darla was on with a LAWs missile in hopes of salvaging a rich cargo. She thought she was sinking a drug courier. Most of the ships which carried the white powder of paradise failed to get to destination. The US DEA and Coast Guard were responsible for 8% of the ships lost. People like Vale got another 46% and weather and stupidity took the rest.

Darla was a surprising girl. Vale liked her immediately and they'd become friends over the years they were together. Darla had a thing for Al, the ship's gunner. This annoyed Vale, not because of jealously, but she preferred that her crew were all loners. It always worked out better that way. Now Al came and sat beside her and fondled Darla's breast. "You press those buttons, I'll press these."

"Cut it out, ya big goon" she told him. He just smiled and picked her up and set her on the console. "Well, stop in a minute." she amended.

* * *

"Ok, it's back" said Penny. "I have it plotted. Should I feed the data to navigation?"

"No" said Brian. "Send it to Bob's ship. I want the Sunbeam to go ahead with the mission we've planned. Take it out of Meenzeii orbit and head for Velar. We'll be in touch and let you know where we'll meet up." He nodded to me and I got up and headed back to the belly bay where the Anarchy was moored.

Inside the ship, I engaged the restraining field on my chair and waited for Brian to turn his on. "Why did you want to take this ship instead of the Sunbeam?" I asked him.

"I haven't had time to check this thing of yours out, and it can jump. The Sunbeam can't. If we use this one, we can get back faster."

"We're coming back here?"

"I mean get back to the Sunbeam."

"Oh. Ok. Ready?"

He said 'sure,' and I hit the catapult. Anarchy was driven down and away from Sunbeam with a force that would have wrenched the strongest of stomachs. But we were protected from the discomfort by the field that was tethering us to the crew chairs. "Course please, Penny" I said, and she responded that the coordinates were laid in. A flick of the wrist and the stars winked off and back on.

We were on approach to a yellow-beige planet. Two silver suns made it seem to glow. "Ok" said Brian. "Let's see where the hens have gone to roost." As if to reply, Penny fed us the location, superimposed on a holo map which hung in front of the forward screens. It showed the planet as a wire frame in blue, and the location of the downed ship as a blinking red dot.

I nosed in towards the planet, and brought the shields to full. In a moment, Anarchy was a glowing meteor that left a trail of flaming atmosphere behind her. As we came within 15000 feet of the surface, Anarchy nosed up and settled to within a few feet of the ground where it rested on its stasis field. Some three hundred yards away was Valence.

Chapter Four

Warning: Open me and Die!


I checked the scan again. "Nothing, they aren't answering the comm and I'm still getting those odd readings from the ground underneath the ship."

"Any chance it could be the missing crew member?"

I checked the readings against the ones from inside the ship. "Nope, those things are reading at least three times human size. I'd say Vale lost one of her crew somewhere."


"What else is new?" I muttered. "So, shall we go find out why they picked this place to stop?"

"Are you going to behave yourself?" asked Bob.

"Kalindra is the one who wants them rendered harmless, dead or both. I just want to know what the hell they were thinking of when they landed on Meenzeii. Kicking their butt's is up to the guy who gave them their ship."

"You can be a real asshole when you want to be."

"Count on it" I grinned. "You figure we need our armor?"

"Against someone who can't figure out how to turn on the radio?"

"No, against someone who's probably still carrying a snub-nose 38 that you never noticed." That got Bob's attention.

"Your kidding, right?" I didn't say a word. "She carried that thing around my family and you didn't say anything?"

"I didn't need to. I fused the firing pin the moment I spotted it." Bob glared at me, but shut up. "Ok, skip the armor. I'm not too keen on walking to get over there though. Whatever those things are underground, I'd just as soon not find out how hungry they are."

"Grav suits?"

"Grav suit, I don't need one" I grinned again.


Five minutes later Bob and I were hovering above the ground next to the Valence. Behind us, the Anarchy was surrounded by a faint haze from the security shields. Neither of us wanted to return to find our friends below had gotten inside while we were gone. Bob was just about to bang on the forward airlock when it irised open to show Vale glaring at the two of us.

"It's about damn time you two got here" she yelled. Leaning out past us, she looked down at the ground below. "I tried to warn you about our friends down there, but the damn radio doesn't work."

"Try switching in on next time" I said as I floated there.

"I did, but something shorted it out. If all the equipment you two build works as well as this ship. I'm going to be dead before I ever see my first coin."

"You keep making friends like you have and you won't need to worry about the ship" yelled Bob. "You and I need to talk, and I mean right now!" Pushing past her, Bob grabbed Vale by the arm and started to drag her towards the bridge.

"I'll take at look at engineering and see if I can figure out why they haven't gotten things put back together yet." Bob nodded at me and then continued to yell at Vale. Dropping my flight field, I headed down the walkway to the rear of the ship. As I got close, I could hear someone banging on something in the distance. "Yeah, right. Hitting it with a hammer is sure to fix it. Morons..."

Stepping through the hatchway, I looked down and about had heart failure. Grabbing a wrench from one of the nearby consoles. I threw it at the head of the moron below me. "You fucking idiot!" I yelled as it glanced off the bulkhead beside him. "What part of 'Open me and Die' did you not understand!"

Whoever the idiot was. He had been taking a small sledgehammer to one of the security latches on the main drive of the Valence. From the looks of the junk at his feet, he'd been trying a lot of other things also.

"Fuck you too! This piece of shit is broken, and I can't get it open to try to fix it" he replied as he threw the wrench back. "I figured the warning was to scare off everyone else."

"Christ, spare us from morons with tools" I muttered to myself. "Yeah, right. That's why we repeated it in four different languages and built the damn container to survive almost anything." Sliding down the stairs, I grabbed the wrench from the floor and hefted it for effect. "Did your computer tell you the drive was damaged?"

"The computer? What would that piece of junk know about it" he said as he watched me toying with the wrench.

"A hell of a lot more than you do. What did you name your computer anyway?" I just got a puzzled look.

"I can't just yell 'hey you' when I want to talk to it. What did you name it?"

"Who names computers? You punch a button and read the screen."

I glared at him and shook my head. "Computer, damage report please?" With a beep from a small console in the front of the compartment. The computer came to life and began to describe the damage to the Valence.

"...and a broken power coupling in section E21-4" said the voice in a sexless monotone.

I looked at the idiot in front of me as he started to realize he'd screwed up royal. "Vale is going to love you when she hears about this." I gave him an obvious once over and then spoke to the computer again. "Computer, accept primary vocal identifier."

"Waiting..." it replied.

"Identifier will be 'Guido'" I said as I looked at the short Italian who had been banging on the drive casing.

"State vocal parameters please?"

"Terran male, origin Italy, light accent."

"Identifier coded and accepted. Whatcha want now boss?" came the smooth male voice as the AI Penny had installed re-configured its vocal interface. The expression on Vale's engineer's face was priceless.

"Estimate time for repair?"

"Me and the boys should have things fixed real good in about two hours." Even as it spoke, the two engineering bots slid from the compartments in the hull and headed off to their jobs.

"Next time, read the damn manuals and ask Guido before you start banging on things with a wrench."

"Fuck you..." he muttered as I turned.

"Look asshole!" I yelled as I turned back. "You want to kill yourself, that's your call. Try blowing a hole in the side of this planet because you can't be bothered to learn how your own ship works and you deal with me." His response was to reach over and grab his weapon from where it lay on top of his jacket. When he turned back, I was shielded and letting the energy I was controlling arc to the floor below me.

"Drop it or die." He took one good look and dropped the energy pistol. I vaporized it before it could hit the floor. "That was the only lesson you get. I didn't choose you clowns, Bob did. He might be willing to cut you some slack but I'm not. The next time you reach for a weapon around me, you won't live to actually touch it."

We stared at each other for a few moments. Then I let the energy I'd been controlling drain back into the main drive. The shields though I only damped down so they wouldn't be visible. "You have about two hours to figure out what to tell your captain when the ship is repaired. I'd make damn sure you mentioned that you didn't know the ship was capable of repairing itself in most cases when asked."

I was just starting to climb back up the stairs to the central walkway, when an odd metallic echo came rumbling down it. For a moment I thought it might have been the idiot behind me throwing another wrench. Then the echoes died down and I got a good listen to the tail end of the noise. "Who the hell fired the... Oh shit..." I yelled as I started to run. It had been awhile since I'd fired a gun, but I still recognized the sound.


Chapter Five


The impact drove me backwards and I fell over the comm station's couch. It took me a second to realize what happened.


I heard Brian's call in my head, but I couldn't think straight. Reaching to my chest, I touched it and my fingers came away bloody. There was a small hole just to the right of my solar plexus, and I couldn't breathe very easily. Anger swelled up in me and I screamed "Bitch!" As I did, a mist of blood droplets sprayed. I knew I was shot through my lung.

"I didn't mean it!" Vale said. She had a surprised expression on her face. "I just wanted to make a point. I didn't mean... I'm sorry."

"Fuck you!" I blurted. It sounded more like 'fuh-koo.' I wanted to tell her I was going to kill her so dead that nobody would ever have known she existed. But there was no energy left to speak. There was a thudding noise I heard somewhere in the distance, and then saw Brian in the hatchway.

"Conner, I warned you."

"It was an accident. I didn't mean to..."

"Shut up. That man's kids carry weapons that make yours look like toys and they don't have accidents. You have no excuse. If he dies, you'll wish you'd never been born" spat Brian.

"I didn't ask for this," growled Vale. "I just..." There was an arc of energy that emitted from Brian towards Vale. I passed out before I could tell what happened.

* * *

"Lie still, Robert." Naldantis stood over me with a concerned look. "You have lost much of your blood and are weak, but you will be fine."

"Brian?" I asked. It came out as a croak.

"He is at the trial."

"What trial?" I asked weakly.

"It is not for you to be concerned about. Rest is what you need. Shall I use a sleep field?"

I shook my head no. It felt like I was being hit in the head with a hammer from one side and then the other when I did. Closing my eyes, it was easy to sleep.

* * *

"So, you finally woke up, huh?" said a smiling Brian.

"What happened?" I asked him.

"Your trader shot you."

It came back to me. I remembered walking behind Vale into the cockhouse of Valence, reading her the riot act for trying to start up an illegitimate business. In slow motion, I could see her turn, and then see that she was holding a gun. Brian had told me he'd fused the firing pin on her weapon, so I didn't expect it to go off.

I didn't know she had another crew members' weapon.

"She said it was a mistake" I told Brian.

"Yeh, that's what she said at the inquiry. Nobody believed it."

"The trial. Nal said something about a trial."

"Yeah, I brought her and her crew back to Meenzeii" said Brian.

"Dead?" I asked.

"Three of them are. They told the Meenzai Court to fuck off. It was the last thing they said" Brian had a smirk on his face.

"You don't have to look so pleased about it" I told him.

"I thought if anyone would think that was funny, it would be you. If you had to depend on Earth's medical science, you'd be worm eaten by now." He sounded a little offended.

"I brought them out here. I'm responsible for this" I said.

"No! Look Bob, you gave some people a good chance to make a life. You took them away from a life that wasn't going to last very long and then gave them a clean slate and a way to make a living. If you made any mistakes, one of them would be in trusting people who shouldn't be trusted. That woman is a slippery one. I expect she'd say anything to get her butt off the hook. She told you that accident stuff because she knew I was on her ship, and that she couldn't get away with what she did." He looked at me sternly.

"I don't know what to think, man." It was lame, but it was the only thing I could think of to say. It was true.

"Your wife knew what to think."

"What does that mean?"

"The Meenzals stopped her on her way to Vale's cell. She was carrying a wristrail and planned to blow a hole in her you could fly your ship through."

"Karen? Did they hurt her?"

"No" Brian giggled. "They threw her a party. She's sleeping off the drunk right now. And she added something to the Meenzal culture, too."

"What? What did she add?"

"You'll find out. Right now, I have to go. Naldantis made me swear I wouldn't stay long." On that, Brian turned and left.

I rolled on my side, and noticed that I couldn't feel pain. I was sure that this was because Nal had put a healing spell on me that blocked pain. I pressed the viewport control, and a section of the wall glimmered and then went transparent. I recognized Meenzeii below us. Rolling back I closed my eyes, and fell asleep again.

* * *

The next time I awoke, I was alone. The room was semi-darkened and it was quiet. Checking my watch, I saw that it was during the ship's sleep cycle. Hungry, I tentatively swung my feet over the edge of the bed, and sat up. When that worked out with no problem, I leaned forward and stood up. I was a little shaky, but alright, so I went to the galley. I was hungry.

On my way to the galley, I ran into Lythandi. She smiled at me and turned sideways to give me room to get by. "Hello, Robert. I see you are well again."

"Yes, thank you. I feel much better, I guess." She looked at me questioningly for a moment.

"You guess?"

"It's an expression. I mean that I'm not too sure what I felt like when I got here."

"Ah, I understand. But you are feeling all right now?"

"Yes, thanks. I feel ok. A little weak, but I'm ok."

"I am pleased. May I help you?"

"I was going to get something to eat. Want to come along and keep me company?"

She said she would, and we made our way to the galley. She put a snack together for me of some toast and soup --chicken noodle-- and sat down while I ate it. The soup and toast was my idea. As we talked, I asked what had been going on, and was surprised to find that 9 days had elapsed since Vale shot me. "Your wound was serious" she said.

"Where are Captain Conner and her crew?" I asked her.

"They are on the planet. The Meenzal law enforcers have them in cells."

"What are they charged with?"

She looked at me for a moment, then spoke. "They are charged with the death of two Meenzai. They tried to escape and killed two guards when they attempted to leave."

I stopped eating. "They what?"

"It would have done them no good. Their ship is in tractor with the Sunbeam. They could not have left the planet."

"Oh, shit. What next?" I asked. It was a rhetorical question.

"Brian is interested in speaking with you" she answered.

I wasn't hungry all of a sudden.

Chapter Six

Fault Tolerant

Brian did want to talk to me, and he found me first thing in the morning. "Now that you seem to be ready for business again, I think we'd better have a little talk."

"About what?" I asked him.

"About your friend Vale Conner."

"Look, she isn't my friend. I just recruited her to become..."

"A trader. I know. But there's a lot more to this. She's caused problems with everyone she's had contact with, and that includes your wife and kids, the crew of the Sunbeam, and just about the entire race of Meenzals. She has to go."

"Yeah, I know that."

"So, you aren't feeling responsible anymore?"

"No. I'm not" I said. I left the cabin and headed to the shuttle bay to grab a ride to the planet. Twenty minutes later I was on the surface and heading for the cells in the Council Building. I got a cursory nod from the guards at the entrance, who glanced knowingly at one another. They were both grinning.

"There you are!" called Vale when she saw me. "I thought you had abandoned us." I looked at her, and then behind her to where the remaining five of her crew sat against the wall of the cell. They looked sullen.

"Hell of a note from the broad who shot me" I answered.

"You know, I've never liked that term" said Vale. Her eyes flashed with anger.

"Hey, fuck what you want. You and this group of dickweeds are more trouble than you're worth. I came to let you know that you dipshits are on your own. That ship of yours --mine --is in tractor behind the Sunbeam, and the last thing I plan to do is give it back to you."

She almost jumped forward, coming close and grabbing the bars of the cage she was in. "You son of a bitch. You brought us out here and..."

"SHUT THE FUCK UP! I've had it with your bullshit. You came to the first goddamn world you could get to and tried to start an arms for enemies business. If that wasn't bad enough, you were making offers on their kids for their fur. Their FUCKING FUR! And when your ass gets stranded because you fuckbrains are too stupid to read a manual, you shoot the person who was still on your side. Well I'll tell you this, your ass is grass and the cats here are lawnmowers."

"You punk. You're don't even have the balls to do your own killing. Fag asshole, it's a good thing you aren't in here."

No sooner than the words came out of her mouth, the cage lock gave a splut noise and a small flash. It fell on the floor with a clunk and the door swung open.

*Be my guest* said Kalindra's voice in my head. I felt a tug on my forearm, and was suddenly wearing a wristrail. Vale saw what happened, and her eyes widened a little.

"Looks to me like you have some unseen enemies, Conner" I told her.

Vale began to yell for the guards, and her crew joined in. A moment later the two sentries from the door walked into the room. "Get this son of a bitch out of here!" she commanded. "He's armed."

The cats looked at each other, then made a production out of looking around the room. "See you only" shrugged one of them. "No know what you say about." The other one nodded his assent and they both turned and left.

"Seems like you have enemies that can be seen, too" I said. Vale opened her mouth to speak, but no words made it out. The wristrail spoke its fuppt word and the top third of her body disappeared. As she hit the floor there was a <pop> and she was gone entirely.

*I did that part. You get the mop job* said Brian in my mind.

Conner's crew stood still, looking at where their boss had been just moments before. One by one, they looked up to me and I could see them weigh the percentage of trying to kill me. "Don't even think it" I said.

The two guards returned and walked past me into the cell. "You come" said the higher ranking cat.

"Where to?" asked the crewman called Max.

"To dinner party. Cannot have without you" said the second cat. I figured I was done, and turned to leave. The first cat looked at me.

"You go? Party be good fun!" he said. "Plenty good food" he added, sounding hopeful.

"Thanks, but no." I looked over at the crew. "I like my meat medium rare, not raw."

A minute later I was standing in the sun outside the building, and saw Brian lounging against a tree. I walked over to where he was standing. "Get it out of your system?" he asked. His tone was inquisitive, not sarcastic.

"I guess... I don't know. I figure there wasn't a choice."

"No, there wasn't. The Meenzals had already decided that you weren't going to take them away. They look at them the same way they do the Maal."

"I guess they don't think much of me either. I brought them here."

"No, they brought themselves. The cats figure you for a sap, but they don't see that as all that bad. They have respect for you. The guards that were out here were making bets on how long it would take you to do the Captain in. There wasn't any question about whether you would or not."

"Yeah, well I still recruited her. I'd have liked it better if it worked out."

"I think everyone would have liked it better that way, but Vale wasn't going to let it happen. I told you that there were problems. Nek made it clear that if Valence ever managed to cross his sights that there would be an accidental discharge of weapons, Kalindra wanted them dead or permanently immobilized, Your wife even came through the gate to try to kill Vale. Not only that, but these people are already legend on Meenzeii because --well because the cats look at them as the lowest form of life there is. Even the Maal had an understandable reason for what they did."

I nodded. It was all true and I knew it. That didn't mean I liked it, but pragmatism was the ruling agent in the universe. Plus, there was no way I was going to let someone shoot me and ignore it. I just looked at Brian and said "Let's get the hell out of here."

From inside the building we could hear screaming. "Yeah, might as well. It sounds like the party's started."

Chapter Seven

It's a joke, right?

It was a wonderful dream, one of the few lately that I could control and enjoy. When I got woken up by Penny setting off a klaxon in my ear, I was fit to kill something.

"What the hell is it this time!"

"Quiet" she muttered. "I used a tight beam to only wake you up. Kalindra in still asleep."

I rolled over slightly and felt Kal snuggled up against my back. With a moment to listen, I could tell by her breathing that my outburst hadn't woken her up as well. "Ok, but the question still stands" I sub-vocalized so only Penny could hear.

"There is a delegation outside your door that wants to talk to you."

"At this time of night?"

"They've been up all night talking. They finally decided to just ask you about something that's bothering them."

"Who is it?" I asked.

"Open the door and find out. They aren't planning to shoot you or anything."

Grumbling the entire time, I inched my way off the bed and stumbled towards the door. Grabbing my robe, I irised the door partially and found myself staring at almost the entire human contingent of the Sunbeam's crew. "This couldn't wait until morning?" I asked as I stepped through and closed the door behind me.

"No, not really" answered Gregor as Dave tried to see past me into the cabin.

"Then let me get something to help me wake up" I said as I glared at Dave. With me in the lead, our little band headed towards the galley and I grabbed the stuff to make myself some hot chocolate. Cali, Gregor and Dave just grabbed chairs and waited.

"Ok, what's bothering all of you this time?"

"Are you going to drink that cold?" asked Cali as she looked at the cup I was holding.

I glared at it for a second and it began to steam. "No, but the microwave is too slow. Now who's first?" I asked as I sat down in front of them. They all looked at each other for a few seconds, then Gregor cleared his throat.

"What happened to Vale and her crew?"

Oh brother... Yeah, that might just cause them fits. "They were found guilty and sentenced to death."

"Guilty of what?"

"Let's see" I answered as I started counting on my fingers. "Stupidity, attempted murder, murder, stupidity again..." and I listed a few other things for good measure. The official list of charges Jasm had sent up had gotten rather creative at times, but it made sense from her point of view. When I ran out of charges, they just sat there and stared at me. I just sat drinking my hot chocolate and waited them out.

"What happens to us if we do something stupid? Do you toss us out the airlock?"

"Depends upon how stupid it is" I answered flippantly. Their reaction told me I'd just put my foot in my mouth again.

"Fucking wonderful..." started Dave.

"Wait a minute" I interrupted. When they stopped yelling I yanked my foot out of my mouth and tried again. "I'm sorry, that wasn't funny" I said. "I'm half asleep and the last couple of days has been pretty fucked even by my standards." I looked at each of them in turn. "You're worried that what happened to Vale and company is standard procedure around here, right?"

"Is it?" asked Dave.

"No, it isn't" I answered as I looked at each one of them in turn again. "Vale was setup to be independent of this group. The problem was that she didn't adjust her habits to suit the new environment. Hell, even I can't believe she was that stupid."

"What did she do? We never heard exactly what it was."

"Let me state it in the human equivalent. She walked up to a group of survivors from the war with the Maal and asked to buy their children. When they asked why, she ignored every warning sign possible and told them that she wanted their fur for trade goods with the Velan's. It was like my asking you for your kids skin to make a wallet."

Cali was white as a sheet, and Dave was looking a little green. "Yes, that qualifies as stupid" muttered Gregor.

"Now I'll answer your question again. If any of you ever do something that stupid, I'll throw you out the airlock myself. Up until that point though, you are my crew and I'll kill anything that tries to fuck with any of you. Penny and I went to a lot of trouble choosing you and I hope that the airlock will never be necessary."

"What if we're just a little stupid?" asked Dave.

"Then you clean filters in the hydroponics tanks for a month."

"Does that go for the other crew as well?" asked Gregor.

"Why shouldn't it?"

"You seem to be a lot more comfortable with the non-human crew members then you do with us. It makes us wonder whether we're second class members of this crew."

I thought about it for a moment and had to agree. "I doubt that I can say anything to convince you you're not, but I can explain why it looks that way." I stood up and grabbed the fixins for another cup as I figured out what I wanted to say. "Anyone want some?" I asked as I flash heated the water. Stirring the chocolate, I sat down again and crossed my fingers.

"Think about what I am for a moment and remember that with only a couple of exceptions, everyone who knows that magic is real is sitting either here or on K1. I was always the quiet type as a kid, and becoming a Mage didn't do anything to help that. I found that avoiding people was easier than trying to hide in plain sight. When I first met Kalindra and the Velans, I found myself in an environment where for the first time I didn't have to hide what I was. The Meenzal's were something of the same thing when Jab first stepped into Bob's and my life. When I'm around Human's though, and especially those I don't know real well, I revert to hermit mode. Actually, I think I'd have made a good monk or something if I'd been born in the middle ages."

"I think that's the longest speech I've heard you give since I came on-board" said Gregor with a faint smile.

"Remember it then. The next one might be years coming" I grinned in reply. "Anyway, that's why it may seem that I'm more comfortable around the others. Letting me know you feel worried was the right thing to do. If you have a complaint, let me know. Hell, bounce a cup off of my head if you need to."

"And if the complaint turns out to be something stupid?"

"Then be ready to duck when I throw the cup back." I searched their eyes and hoped what I saw was a good sign. "Just remember that even with everything I've been through the last year, I have yet to loose a crew member. Though I've tried to do in Jab more than once." They looked at each other then stood up and thanked me for taking time to talk to them.

"No problem" I answered. "I'm going to make mistakes and when I do I want you to point them out. If any of you think Bob and I know what we're doing out here. The next few months should ruin that idea in a hurry."

As they were filing out of the galley, a random thought occurred to me as I caught sight of the Valence in orbit behind us through one of the ports. "Say, if any of you has an idea of how we might try again with setting up some kind of trade. I'm sure Bob would be glad to listen to it. Otherwise that ship is going to be just so much wasted time."

"I might have an idea about that" said Gregor as he opened the door to his cabin. "I will speak with Bob about it tomorrow" and the door closed behind him.

Somehow I was not surprised to see Dave hanging around outside my door. "Dave, you are going to get a terrible reputation as the ships pervert if you keep trying to sneak a look at my mate." He at least had the decency to blush.

"That's not what... I wasn't trying to..." I just smiled as he sputtered to a stop. Finally, he handed me a sheet of paper and headed towards his cabin muttering to himself. Opening the paper, I found myself looking at a credit slip from Jasm. 'To the next owner/operator of the ship known as Valence' it read. When I finished reading it, I wasn't sure whether is was a joke or just in poor taste. Finally I stuck it where Bob would find it in the morning along with a note that he should figure out how to handle it.

I was still thinking about the mind that could have thought of something like that as I snuggled back into the huge pillow I laughingly called a bed. With a final chuckle, and a promise to myself to avoid Meenzal messhall's in the future, I rolled over and went to sleep. My last thought before I fell asleep was to wonder what the exchange rate was for Meenzeii credits.

To the next owner/operator of the ship know as Valence.

This note is payment for the shipment delivered to the KiZex prison complex on 57 JE.

(5) Self contained meals, uncooked 100,000cr

(1) Self contained meal, damaged in shipment 5,000cr

Signed: Jasm mal Eo

Head of the Meenzeii Council

Chapter Eight

A new horizon

I felt a little peculiar using the rowing machine Brian had put together for me. There was a need to build muscles back that had suffered from my being shot, and physical therapy was the only way to deal with that. The lazy part of me wanted Naldantis to wave a wand and make it all better, but he'd explained that while he could heal the wound, it was up to me to tone the muscles. So I was sitting on the floor of my cabin, pulling on unseen oars. All that was visible were a pair of small grips that I held in each hand, and they pulled against a resistance field Brian whipped up with a quick note.

"I hate to say this, Bob. But you look pretty silly" said Gregor. He'd quietly entered the cabin when he saw the door was ajar. He startled me and I was instantly embarrassed. I guess the red in my cheeks showed because he held up a hand in a stop gesture. "Wait. I know what you're doing and why, and that isn't silly. It just looks a little odd without a Nautilus machine or something."

I stood up and rolled my shoulders. They were aching from the workout. After arching my back with my hands on my hips, I faced him. "So what can I do for you, dude?"

"Brian suggested that I talk to you."

"Oh God. What did I do now?"

"Uh, nothing. I guess. I just, well I had this idea..." his voice trailed off and I noticed him looking out of the viewport at Valence. The ship sat empty, it's computer maintaining attitude and orbit for the crewless ship.

"You're thinking about Jasm's ice box, huh?" I asked him. He saw the glimmer of a grimace on my face and put a hand on my shoulder.

"Brian told us what that was all about. I'll be real honest and say that some of us aren't real comfortable with the way things worked out, but we understand why they worked out the way they did." The edges of his mouth turned up slightly. "Remind me not to piss you off."

I looked at him with my head cocked to the side a bit. "Was that supposed to be funny?"

"Yes. Wasn't it?"

I thought for a second. "Yeah. Yeah I guess it was." I shrugged and smiled at him. "So, what's the idea you wanted to talk about?"

He gestured towards the door and started towards it. "Let's take a walk. It smells funny in here."

"Maybe I should change my socks, huh? Do you think three months is often enough?" Gregor shuddered and made a face like he'd just sucked a lemon.

"That's disgusting" he said, and quickened the pace to the door. I giggled.

"Yeah, isn't it great?"

He didn't reply, but stepped through the door and into the corridor. I knew what he meant though, rowing and exercising in the confined room had stored the odious qualities to my perspiration, and I figured it probably did smell pretty bad in there. "Penny, would you please vent my quarters to get rid of the smell?"

"Ok." she replied right away. "But I'm not touching that pile of socks in the corner!" Gregor looked like he was feeling queasy.

"Hey! A job's a job, Penny. Just have a bot store them in the galley in the freezer with the last batch" I said. Gregor stopped dead and turned to face me.

"Bob. Stop. Please stop. I just ate breakfast."

"You didn't have the hosiery steak, did you?" I asked innocently. Gregor's face took on a greenish pallor. "Ok, ok. I'm sorry. I'll quit. Let's go up on the bridge and I'll hear your idea." He looked relieved, but shook his head no.

"I'd be more comfortable in the chartroom" he replied.

"The chartroom it is, then" and we went in and sat down.

"What are your plans for the Valence?" he asked. He was studying my face closely, no doubt looking for some kind of emotion. He found it. I had been wrestling with my feelings since the final interview with Conner and her crew, and still felt like I had a strong hand in their demise. I saw myself as the cook who added the wrong ingredients to a stirpot.

I thumbed a control on the small console on the table, and a wire frame of Valence appeared in a rotating hologram. "I don't know, man." I answered him seriously. "I just don't know."

"Well, Brian says you might be open to suggestion" he told me.

"Yeah, sure. What's the plan?" Gregor looked relieved when I said this.

"Look, I've been reading a lot on the Maal wars. At first, I thought, well, we all thought that there were only two planets involved. But there's a lot more, aren't there?"

"Yes, there are. I could be wrong, but I think it's something like twenty or so of them." He nodded.

"Well, what I was thinking was, maybe it would be a good idea to go to one of the more badly damaged planets, and give the ship to them so they can get some kind of commerce going to help them rebuild."

"Go on" I said. "Or was that it?"

"Well, we've seen people from Velar and Meenzeii, but we've never seen anyone from any of the other planets... sure, we've read about them in the materials in the library, but that's not the same thing as meeting them."

It was so stunningly simple I gave myself a mental kick for not having thought of it myself. Unlike the earth, these worlds were well aware that other life existed, some of them painfully aware. In earlier history some were the conquered of the Meenzai Empire, some weren't. But they all shared in the knowledge of interplanetary or interstellar flight, and were much more likely to succeed at trading than the group I'd chosen. "Tell me more, Gregor."

Over the next twenty minutes he did. His view was that part of his purpose was to study. A great part. To have a reason to drop in on some of these worlds was a lot better than descending on their world to look at them like specimens. It would allow the crew of the Sunbeam to work alongside the different races, and get a much better knowledge of their ways and thinking than a distanced observation would.

"Ah! Your here! Been look all over ship for you. Crystal Lady say go chartroom." I looked over and saw Jab with his head through the irised port from the hallway.

"Hey cat. What's up?" I asked.

"You supposed help Jab with armor" he said reproachingly. "Hard to do by self."

"Sorry, cat. I got involved here. I'll be along in a couple of minutes" I told him. The Meenzal gave me a dirty look and sat down.

"Wait for Bob. Then know where is and when come" he said. I couldn't blame him. He was feeling a bit left out of things lately. Up until the last few weeks, there was rarely a time he wasn't with me, and since the Trader project started that had changed and he didn't like it. He'd lectured me long and hard about leaving him behind when Brian and I went off to find Vale. It was his strong position that had he been there, I never would have been shot. Actually, there was probably a lot of truth to that.

"Well," said Gregor, "that's my idea. Why don't you go help Jab with the suits or whatever, and think about it some." I nodded. In the back of my mind, I could feel the tickle of contact as Jab probed to see what I'd been talking with Greg about.

I stood up. "I think the idea's a good one, and maybe we should have a crew meeting about it. Get other ideas and see if we can round out a plan."

"Don't you want to just work it out on your own? I've noticed that you're kind of independent."

I sat back down and Jab rolled his eyes and began to tap the deck with his claw tips. ticka-ticka-ticka-tic. Giving the fuzball a dirty look, I turned my attention to Gregor. "Look, man. We aren't islands out here. We have to work together. The previous attempt at trading made that clear to me. This is your idea, and I think you ought to spearhead it. It's a damn good idea, and as far as I'm concerned, Valence is yours."

"Mine? I don't want the ship" he said looking surprised.

"Figure of speech. What I mean is, I screwed up royally with my try at this, and you're making a lot of sense. It would be great if you took over."

"You don't have a problem with that? I mean, you aren't offended?"

"Hell no! Right now that bucket of bolts is an anthem to failure. It has a lot of potential, and I'd like it to be something better than it is now... a fucking albatross around my neck."

"Well, it would mean we'd need to make more of them" he said. "I don't want to speak for you."

"You mean, use K1 to build more of these?"

"Maybe. I mean, I guess so."

"Cool" I said, and started out the door. Jab was at my heels. "Like I said. The ball is yours, so run with it. Get a picture of how you think it should be, and then call a crew meeting when you're ready."

As Jab and I travelled down the corridor, I noticed a piece of paper stuck to the door to the belly bay of the Sunbeam. Stopping, I pulled it off and looked at it. "Oh, fuck" I said and balled the paper up and dropped it on the floor.

The cat picked it up and looked at it, and started laughing. He made a noise like an overheated un-oiled bearing --the Meenzal idea of a laugh. "That funny!" he said still chuckling. "Self-contained meal packet..."