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Trover, 2000

TROVER IV: WIN SOME, LOSE SOME

David Bruce Bozarth

A short story sequel to TROVER


Bozarth's ERB-tradition space-opera TROVER is the most downloaded tale at Tangor's Pastiche and Fan Fiction web site. The author offers the following note for this sequel:

Trover IV: Win, Some Lose Some picks up the tale of Malcom Kirk and his Parani girlfriend t'sinji after the events of the as yet unpublished Trover II: Enlistment Duress and Trover III: Abusement Park. Parts II and III are novel length adventures which introduce the Maltese Falcon, an ancient and nearly indestructible Ormic ship operated by Kirk and t'sinji. II and III also include the events which caused a highly secret and complex computer (integrating technology with a living human brain) to be installed on the small trader; and various dangerous confrontations between the Maltese Falcon and the Kretaj Combine. If Trover IV: Win Some, Lose Some enjoys the same readership as Trover, I might be cajoled into eventually releasing parts V, VI, and VII, which are short stories like the one you are about to read.

Kirk glared at the printout Daw, the bio-comp, displayed for his examination. "You must be kidding!" the big Terran exclaimed.

"Not in the least," Daw confirmed. "Shall I load each of the invoices and orders our flight-second made at the last three ports of call? Really, Malcolm! Earther condiments at barbarous prices, colored fluff twine and Terran bar silver .99 fine? What is t'sinji up to?"

"I'm sure there's a good explanation, though I can't think of one at the moment. Where is she now?"

"Library. With manual overrides on the video ports. Want me to divert, boss?"

Malcolm Kirk, captain of the Ormic freighter Maltese Falcon was tempted. "Better not."

Daw's voder harumped. "I say we check on her. Let me take a peek!"

"I'll be very disappointed if you do, Rex. Trust is all we have--that and privacy. The minute I find out you can't be trusted or honor privacy will be the day we leave the Falcon."

"Yeah? Big deal," Rex Daw, human-brain-turned computer began.

Malcolm cut Daw short. "Without humans on board I'd like to see you try getting a core re-fit. Repairs. Necessaries. Whatever. Tell me how a sentient ship, without any credit holding, can accomplish these things or continue to exercise free choice once the authorities find out you exist? You think about that, Mr. Daw."

The control room was silent for long minutes. Kirk sat with crossed arms and set chin until the computer apologized. "Okay," Daw growled, "I need you more than you need me. But," the bio-comp wheedled mournfully, "aren't you just the teeniest bit curious what our lovely Parani is up to?"

Malcolm faced the central panel, behind which the brain of Rex Daw lay in a nutrient-rich bath and chuckled. "Itching with it but I won't scratch unless there's danger to ship and crew."

Daw sighed, a very realistic sound through the voder. "I suppose we might as well begin jumpdown checklists."

"Getting slow in your old age?" Kirk grinned. "We have two and a half hours before even thinking about that."

"Need something to occupy myself."

"How about a few rounds of Galactic Conquerors? I feel lucky today."

"Bah!" Daw laughed. "Prepare to die, O, insignificant one!"

The main console screen cleared and the navigation visual was instantly replaced with a sixty-four million color splash screen of the latest craze from the game geniuses of Anarek. Kirk reached for the joy stick, pausing to admonish, "You cut the Thorden IV out of your sensory paths this time, Rex. I'm not playing you and that sophisticated weapons computer."

Daw shut down the Thorden, except for the ship's exterior monitor field. "On your best day you couldn't beat me with one hand tied behind my back."

"Want to kill your vectoring subroutines and see?" Malcolm asked with a grin.

"Uh..."

Malcolm made use of that moment of indecision to launch concentrated attacks against Daw's game start production centers. Half were fading incandescent blips before the bio-comp responded. For the next twenty minutes the two engaged at breakneck speed, flesh and blood slowly losing the initial advantage. Kirk began falling back as the computer regained ground, expanded capabilities, and eventually had the Terran down to one ship hiding behind an asteroid in a solar system about to go nova.

"Had enough?" Rex asked.

Malcolm chuckled, pressing a button which blew his solitary piece to smithereens. "An honorable suicide rather than ignominious capture."

Daw's victorious amusement was tempered with grudging respect. "Maybe we'll try it sometime without the vector routines, just to see who's really the best man."

"No need," Kirk replied with equal admiration. "I'm the best man-- you're the best ship. And I'd rather we be best friends rather than competitors."

"Aw, go on, Boss. You'll have me blushing. Say, back in round 432, where did you get that stunt? Was that something they taught you at the Academy? If so, how come I didn't get it?" Daw had begun game replay at 400 and advanced at a sedate pace. "There--that's how you drew me out. Then..."

The two were still discussing tactics when t'sinji entered the control room. She smiled at the animated Earthman and the computer. The slim, strikingly beautiful woman gracefully settled into her co-pilot's position and strapped down.

"Boys--" That unmistakable lilt in a Parani woman's voice always grabbed humanoid males in a particularly lusty way and brought the conversation to an end. "Can we get a little work done? Jumpdown in nineteen minutes."

Daw's voice was pleasantly rude. "Silence, woman. Can't you see your betters are busy? Besides, dear, I've been running internal diagnostics for the last six point oh seven minutes. Core secured. Falconi operational. Mechanics secured. Mass proximity at 150,000 kilometers."

"But did you turn out the lights below Deck Three?"

"Damn it! How does she do that, Kirk?"

"You left the lights on again? Tsk. Tsk. What's your cargo status, Second?"

"Shift compensators active. Magnetics at full. Stasis on the breakables. I'm a mind reader."

Daw sputtered. "Tell me it ain't so, Boss! I know Parani women are good, but they can't--"

"You're talking to the wrong fellow, Rex." Malcolm was busy at the nav-comp double checking work Daw had already double-checked, cubed. "As far as I'm concerned t'sinji is not only a mind reader, she's the wicked witch of the East and South, and Glenda the Good rolled into one. In other words, she's magic."

"I don't believe in magic," Daw replied. "Twelve minutes to jumpdown on my mark...MARK!"

"Locked in," Malcolm confirmed. Without turning his head from the busy display before him, the captain spoke to his second. "Want some practice?"

"Practice?" t'sinji asked.

"Would you like to put some time in on that Falconi license that cost us an arm and a leg?"

"Of course!" t'sinji eagerly replied. A half second later she asked, "Is that wise? Baltion's a busy port."

"Sooner or later you'll have to do it. I'd rather you get the experience now rather than a do-or-die situation."

"Do I get a say in this, Boss?" Rex asked. When Kirk scowled, the computer pouted. "Okay, okay. But I'll be watching. It's really my hide we're talking about."

t'sinji was busy since Kirk had switched navigational control to her console, but she found time to say: "And it is due for a good scrub. I'll even front the cost from cargo's budget to remove that oxidizing krill dust we picked up."

Rex chuckled. "You know, Malcolm, she's really not so bad. I think you ought to keep her. Jumpdown in five minutes, on my mark...MARK!"

"Locked in," t'sinji responded.

At two minutes, the Falconi drive began its bone jarring subsonics. At one minute the audible hum became annoying. At one second to jumpdown it was unbearable, then gone in an instant as several hundred gravities of acceleration were reversed in a micro second. The physical beings fought a sensation of wearing insides on the outside, vertigo, a sickening implosion, followed by a shattering explosion, blurred vision and a static electrical discharge through each and every cell. That micro second passed and the stout 2,500 ton freighter was in trans-normal space at a velocity of 10/c per hour.

t'sinji announced, "Jumpdown complete. Hyperspace mechanics off-line. 17 lights from Baltion."

Kirk and Daw's confirmations were nearly simultaneous.

The bio-comp, as was Daw's practice at every planetary approach, activated the Thorden. As usual he muttered, "Better safe than sorry, Boss." After a number of run-ins with the Kretaj Combine, the Confederation, and the TSF, neither humanoid crew member faulted the sentient computer's caution.

"Outer beacon one point two lights starboard," t'sinji said. "Damn nice plotting, Malcolm."

"Yep, if I may say so myself."

Rex had a comment that began, "Smug bast--" but t'sinji slapped the voice circuit.

"Behave yourself, Rex, or so help me I'll gag you until we set down." She tapped the circuit open, though her finger hovered over the button.

"I'll be good," Rex sullenly replied.

"I know you will. You're a sweetheart."

Malcolm sent a response to the beacon's inquiry and received confirmation seconds later. "Cleared for approach," he relayed. "Five minutes to breaking maneuver."

The crew busied themselves for the next five minutes, inspecting and verifying ship and components now that it was back in normal space. Daw detected, and removed, a Holz-Tak charge which had settled into the Falconi plasma circuits. "Nasty stuff," Rex commented as the excess H-space static was bled off into the Ormic ship's thick hull and swiftly dissipated into space.

t'sinji monitored changes in the cargo area, a particularly important procedure. Since the Maltese Falcon's well-being depended on safe, prompt delivery of goods, the young Parani did not take her job lightly. Her slim-fingered hands passed over the console interface with practiced ease, adjusting stasis fields, strengthening magnetics, or adjusting atmospheric pressures.

"Cargo secure," t'sinji announced.

"Excellent, dear," Kirk replied. "I've contacted Port Authority and transferred the necessary credits and purchased the liability insurance. Gouging bastards took a chunk out of our profits. Next time I'll let you talk to them."

Daw, the human side, reappeared. "All set, Captain. Engines top order."

"Forward your report to Second. Second, you have the helm."

t'sinji's song-like speech responded, "Affirmative. Brake in forty-five seconds."

The Parani performed the procedure flawlessly and the Maltese Falcon began dumping velocity with a vengeance. Fifteen minutes later the Falcon was on trajectory to Baltion at a very sedate .8 c and falling.

Malcolm leaned back and slowly relaxed. It was rarely discussed by ship crews, but nerves were always on edge whenever a ship was above c and not in hyperspace. Bad Things happened at that threshold.

The big raw-boned Earthman grinned at t'sinji. "Another seven hours before landing. Got any ideas how we might pass the time?"

The pretty Parani ignored the man's suggestive leer. "I'll be in the library. I do not wish to be disturbed."

Malcolm's loving leer relaxed into a smile. He knew t'sinji would come to him in the night. She always did. That part of their relationship was secure. The young woman's recent secretive behavior was new, however, and he could not help asking, "What are you up to, dear?"

t'sinji smiled back, shrugging her shoulders. "Nothing much. I'll tell you later." The woman secured her station and rose. Before descending the access, t'sinji paused and looked at the Earthman and, by including the control room, Rex Daw as well. "You boys promised to not spy on me. I'm counting on you."

Malcolm grinned sheepishly. t'sinji smiled again (with a hint of dire consequences if crossed) then left the control room.

"Can't help loving that gal," Malcolm sighed.

Rex's reply also contained a wistful sound. "Though the libido disappeared with the body, my memory is in full agreement. There's very few times I envy you, Malcom Kirk, but this is one of those times."

Malcom nodded. Rex Daw had been turned into a hybrid bio-computer against his will but had then made the best of a bad deal. His one-time rival, back when Malcom Kirk had been a fellow officer in the Terran Space Force, was completely comfortable in his new skin--now that he had a say in the safety of that skin. Kirk grinned. "There's times I admire your freedom from the frailties of the flesh."

Both were silent for a long time.

Malcolm busied himself on the comm unit picking up mail, replying, sending notices to various shipping agents of their arrival, arranging new cargo, and contracting for some minor repairs in the Falcon's living quarters. Malcolm rarely knew what Daw did to occupy his time, though no sub-system on the Maltese Falcon failed to perform to spec or above, except in the case of catastrophic failure and a lack of replacement parts. This high level of "self-maintenance" was one reason the independent freighter ran close to profitability. Other independents struggled with expensive course adjustments due to misaligned instruments and wasteful fuel use. Time delays for perishable or time sensitive delivery could spell financial ruin. The Maltese Falcon not only normally ran in the black, there was a growing surplus in three different stellar banks despite Rex Daw's concerns for t'sinji's recent expenditures.

Malcolm eventually pushed away from the console and stretched to un-kink stiff muscles. "Can't take this any longer today. Turning the helm over to you, Mr. Daw. I'm going to the gym."

Kirk set the gym's internal gravity to 1.7 g and commended a heavy workout that accelerated his heart rate and worked very muscle. At the end of the session the big Earther felt better, though his dark space-tanned skin was in need of hygienic attention.

t'sinji was in their personal quarters. Malcolm tried to kiss the woman, who dodged with a wrinkled nose. An imperious finger pointed to the refresher. Malcolm sighed. "Won't be long, dear."

"That's good because I'm cooking dinner tonight."

"Really?" Malcolm asked, shedding his one-piece ship suit and securing the seal to the refresher. "What's the occasion?"

"Do we need an occasion for me to prepare a meal?"

"Probably not," the Earther replied, "though it does seem that's about the only time you use the galley."

t'sinji giggled. "I suppose that's true. Yes, it is an occasion. I'm surprised you forgot."

"Clue me in," Malcolm called when nothing further was related. "t'sinji?" Kirk stuck his head outside the fluid retaining curtain and discovered the woman had left. "I wish she'd stop doing that!" The Earthman hurried through his shower, concerned that he had somehow overlooked a date of significance in their relationship.

* * * * * * * *

Malcolm left the bridge. The door to the library was sealed with t'sinji's personal code. If there was sufficient reason Malcolm, or Rex for that matter, had the authority to over ride the lock. However, privacy was the one non-negotiable personal freedom on a starship. Casually ignoring privacy seals usually resulted in dissension, if not violence and justified homicide. The big man shrugged shoulder. Whatever the young Parani was up to would be revealed in time, or would remain a mystery forever.

Kirk went to the Maltese Falcon's workshop to put in a few hours on his latest project. The gleaming length of the Falcon's secondary jump boat was disturbed by open or removed access covers which spoiled the small six passenger ferry's appearance. Rewinding the pazler coils by hand was tedious, and could certainly be done in a proper port side facility during a single planetary rotation, yet the cost of that convenience was, in the Earthman's opinion, greater than necessary. Time is one thing spacers have in abundance. A task which might annoy others with more time sensitive demands was exactly the therapeutic project for a spacer. Malcolm sat down at the work bench, dropped the local gravity field which kept his work firmly in place during ship maneuvers, and began working on the last of the pazler coils.

An hour later, while the new-wound coil was being charged and tested, the Terran installed the two previous coils which had passed. Daw's voice came over the sound system.

"Need a kibbitzer?"

"Would you go away if I said 'No'?"

"Hardly," Daw chuckled.

"Well, make yourself useful then. Interface with the breakout cable and run field strength tests on three and four."

"Working..." Then, "Both okay. You must have steady hands, Boss." Then, "Alright, Malcolm, how long are you going to put up with t'sinji's secrecy?"

Malcolm Kirk slid out from under the jumpboat's belly to retrieve the access cover. Though it wasn't necessary he meticulously polished the pristine interior surface before returning to install it on the craft's underside. Several moments passed and still there was no answer to Daw's question. The computer's voice held a peevish tone.

"No comment, Kirk?"

"What do you want me to say that wouldn't be a repeat of what's already been said? Other than satisfying your curiosity, do you have a problem?"

"I suppose not. Uh....there's a flutter in sub-assembly P36-A-1207. Want me to take a look at it?"

"You already have," Kirk laughed. "What's the problem?"

"Fixed. Human error in setting the calibration."

Malcolm laughed, arms akimbo, and stood back to look at the finished project. "I guess we can take her out for a spin."

"I suppose you think reaction mass costs nothing? The boat is certified. What would launching it prove?"

Kirk chuckled. "Absolutely nothing, except to satisfy my personal curiosity."

Malcolm cleared away all tools and secured the workshop. Daw, in the meantime, used the ship's internal gravitation in conjunction with a drone robot, to move the jumpboat back to its usual berth.

"All secure, Captain," Daw reported with a voice that kept pace with the big Terran's movements from aft to forward.

Malcolm cleaned up in the infrequently used common refresher. There was no other crew on the Maltese Falcon and no passengers on this trip. Kirk inspected his fingernails as he stopped by the access to the ship's library to tap the communicator by the sealed hatch. "Are you going to be much longer? I'm hungry, woman."

t'sinji's reply carried a touch of annoyance. "I'm not one of your simpering Earth females, Malcolm Branislau Kirk. Either feed yourself or wait until I'm done."

The ready light on the comm unit winked out before Kirk could respond. Daw localized his commentary to the captain. "Branislau?"

Malcolm's growl was very convincing. "Breath a word and I swear I'll turn your trank tank back on."

"Oh! Bit touchy, are we?"

One should note that Rex Daw never repeated this knowledge. His silence was not from any threat of being turned back into the unaware psionic computer that had been installed on the Maltese Falcon by renegade TSF agents on a secret mission that Malcom Kirk constantly tried to forget. Daw knew there were lines one did not cross even with friends. Daw changed subjects. "Want me to rustle up some grub, old buddy?? I make a wonderful asparagus souffle."

The Earthman shook his head. "We'll wait for t'sinji. She doesn't often offer to cook and I believe we ought to give her a chance."

"No skin off my non-existent nose. I'm no longer protein and calorie dependent."

Malcolm grinned at Rex's observation. The Earthling paused at the gallery to grab a cup of coffee. As he leaned against the bulkhead sipping the bitter brew, Daw broke in with an urgent message.

"Trouble, boss. Check this relay." Rex played back a frantic message from what sounded like a young child. "...and I can't wake Pops. Can anyone help us? I know we're supposed to be slowing down but I don't know how. Pops looks awful bad."

Another voice, Baltion Control, cut in. "Let me talk to your flight second."

"What? Can you hear me? Please help Pops. He's all I have in the world."

"Identify yourself," Control responded.

Kirk drew a finger across his throat and Rex reduced the volume on the playback. "Damn idiots. Do you have a fix on her?"

"Already plotted. t'sinji's notified. Malcom," Rex paused a fraction as the big Terran sprinted to the jump boat bay. "That ship is coming in fast, boss. There isn't much time."

"Any traffic near, besides us?" Malcolm slammed through the corridor then into the jump boat bay. Daw's voice followed him.

"Nothing close enough. Their trajectory is for the sixth moon. Uninhabited. Airless."

"Any more good news?" Kirk sealed the Falcon's jump boat and evacuated atmosphere from the hanger. The bay doors quickly opened to deep space.

Daw seemed pre-occupied. "If I think of anything, I'll let you know. Good luck!"

"Clear."

t'sinji's voice came through Kirk's pressure suit headphones. "Be careful, dear. Rex has the conn, I'm in medical."

Malcolm grunted harshly because of the g-forces required to close distance with the distressed ship. The jump boat's engine whined as the Terran went to one-hundred-twenty percent power. "Just put my dinner in the warmer, kitten. I'll be a little late tonight."

Kirk tried to talk to the child calling for help, but couldn't get through the increasingly frantic transmissions from Baltion Control. "Help me out, Mr. Daw. Jam that signal."

"Your wish is my command." Daw activated some special ECM gear normally not found on civilian freighters--or very many ships-of-the-line. Instant silence.

Malcolm keyed the mike. "Hey there, kiddo. Can you hear me now?"

"Who's that?" a frightened voice replied.

"Name's Kirk. I'm right behind you a few thousand klicks and closing fast. What's your name?"

"Brenda Sue."

"Hello, Brenda Sue. Your blip looks a little small. What kind of ship are you in?"

"Pops' Mercedes."

"How is Pops?" Malcolm fought his controls. "Is he breathing?" Anything to keep the girl talking.

"Yes. He doesn't look too good."

"Can you do something for me, honey?"

"I'll try--"

"Do you see a blue and orange panel next to the pilot's seat? There's three big white buttons."

"I see it. Do you want me to push one?"

"No, dear. Not those. See a covered switch access upper right corner? Open it for me."

"It's open," came the reply.

"Press the red switch, Brenda Sue."

"Oh no!" the girl cried. "The drive shut off!"

"That's good," Malcolm swiftly reassured her. "I couldn't close with you until we turned it off. I have you on visual now. Can you see me?"

"Pops showed me the mass proximity...there you are!"

Malcolm was startled by the relief in the girl's voice. "Okay, Brenda Sue. You have to help me one more time." Kirk tried to keep his voice calm as he battled the g-stress. He braked hard by the seat of his pants near the small sport yacht. "Seal the control room, honey. Do you know how to do that?"

"Yellow switch by the hatch?"

"That's my girl. You'll hear me on your hull in a minute. Don't be afraid."

"I won't, but please hurry!"

Malcolm checked the autopilot's velocity matching as he prepared magnetic grapples. Up coming maneuvers he planned to make would be too violent for tractor beams alone. Kirk pressurized his suit and decompressed the airlock. The hatch to the Mercedes was only a step away.

Daw's voice, relayed through the jump boat's transmitter, rasped in Malcolm's ear. "You must be down, Boss. What's the word?"

"Entering the lock now."

"Don't dawdle or stop to kiss the girls. You have two minutes and seven seconds to nudge that pleasure boat a few degrees or you won't have enough power to break out."

"Tell me something I don't know. Cycling the lock. I'm in. Lock secure. Going forward. Where are you now?"

"A ten kilometers behind and above."

"Stay close, but not too close."

"Gotcha, Boss."

"Busy now," Kirk said after entering the control room. "If you will, Mr. Daw, give me mark by the ten until t-minus 60 seconds."

The inner lock door slid open. A gawky figure in an oversize pressure suit greeted him by moving aside. Malcom's gloved hand patted the girl's head. She appeared eight to ten years old. "You did good! Now strap down, Brenda Sue."

The pilot, an elderly man, was ashen in appearance and unresponsive. There wasn't time to see if he was breathing, it was imperative to alter course now or it wouldn't make a difference to any of them. Malcom moved the man to a passenger couch and strapped him in, then settled into the pilot's position.

"Talk to me, Boss," Daw chimed in after the clock tick. "How are we doing?"

"We'd be doing better without the commentary. Uh, I make it bearing four-six point seven degrees in fourteen seconds at eight g's."

"Affirmative," Daw replied. "t'sinji wants to know about the crew."

Malcolm spoke calmly as his hands flew across the console. "Human girl, young. Adult male. Not so young." He switched off and asked the girl: "Anyone else on board, Brenda Sue?"

"No, sir."

Malcolm restarted the sport yacht's engines. "Hang on, Brenda Sue."

The Mercedes yawed drunkenly as the motors shrieked from the energy expended moving two ship masses. Kirk corrected manually, keeping one eye on the progress, the other on the girl and the unconscious old man. The child looked frightened as the g-forces built but grit her teeth and remained quiet. Malcom's calm voice distracted Brenda Sue's pre-occupation with the heavy acceleration.

"Is this your parent?"

"The only one who's ever taken care of me. I guess that makes him my father. I don't remember anyone else."

"Handsome fellow," Malcolm shifted the controls a few more degrees. "What were you doing so far out in a family runabout?"

"I'll have you know we just jumped in from Anarek!" Brenda Sue proudly said. "Pops had some business."

Kirk blinked, reserving his expletive about jumping sixty lights in such a small craft. He kept the girl talking as he watched the readouts and displays to see if the course correction would take. "How are we doing, Rex?"

"We'll know in another ten seconds."

Brenda Sue's chin quivered, though she continued to keep silent. Malcom made the effort to reach over and pat the girl's knee. "We'll be fine," Malcolm said reassuringly.

The ten seconds seemed eternal in duration.

Malcolm breathed a sigh of relief when Daw's superior sensors on the Maltese Falcon confirmed the Mercedes' barely adequate instrumentation. "We're in the clear, Brenda Sue." Malcolm cut power to the engines. "Now, let's take a look at Pops."

Kirk paused long enough to remove his pressure suit helmet. Opening the med emergency locker behind the pilot's seat, Kirk cursed softly. "We seem to be out of medical supplies."

Brenda Sue was embarrassed. "Pops tried. Really did. Everything costs so much. I told him to leave me..."

"That's alright, kiddo. I brought some medical things with me just in case."

Malcolm removed a medcorder from his left thigh side pocket. The device powered up with a series of pleasant pre-post beeps, verified memory and loaded basic diagnostics. The big Terran scanned Pops. The initial response from the medcorder was encouraging and he said as much to the worried child.

"If we get him to Baltion quick time, he'll live. But he's very ill, Brenda Sue. How long has Pops had cancer, girl?"

Brenda Sue began to cry. "He never told me why he felt bad. Oh, Pops!" She flung thin arms around the old man's neck.

Malcolm gripped the child's shoulder and discretely radioed the Maltese Falcon. "Old fool--no, not fair, we don't know that--at any rate we have a medical emergency. Prognosis is high probability for success if we can get Pops to a full-fledged med center within the next few hours. How soon before you match velocity and trajectory?"

"Matched now, Boss," Rex Daw replied. "We don't mess around. t'sinji's in cargo two shifting load. Seems to think we can bring that Mercedes on board."

Malcolm scratched his jaw line, mentally comparing the sport yacht's dimensions with the great doors to the Falcon's largest hold. "I'll have to take her word for it, but it'll be mighty tight."

"t'sinji says she can do it."

"Believe her. That's why she's cargo master and we're not."

"Captain--" t'sinji's voice interrupted. "You'll have to off-load your passengers and bring them aboard by jump boat. Once that Mercedes is in the hold, we can't open any of the interior hatches. Jettison the sportabout's reaction mass and the aft converter."

"Understood. Kirk out. Okay, Brenda Sue. I need your help. Can you find Pops' pressure helmet for me?"

Malcolm began shutting down systems while Brenda Sue secured and pressurized her foster-father's ev-suit.

"All set?"

"Yes, sir," the wide-eyed little girl replied.

"You take his legs."

Weightless, Malcolm did not need Brenda Sue's "help", but having it served to give the girl something to do and stay out of trouble. Malcolm made sure both the unconscious man and the child were secure in the jump boat before returning to the yacht. The external tank containing mono-atomic hydrogen was ejected along with the aft convertor with a gentle nudge. The last of the small ship's systems were placed on standby. Malcolm scanned the cockpit one last time then sealed the Mercedes and re-entered the Falcon's jump boat. Seconds later, the jump boat disengaged and slowly diverted to a position five hundred meters away. A gleaming star, moving across the black panorama, grew in size and intensity until the familiar shape of the Maltese Falcon drew alongside the sports yacht.

Glancing at Brenda Sue, Kirk noted the girl seemed much calmer since the inter-ship transfer. When he again looked outside, the Mercedes was already loaded into the Maltese Falcon's hold.

"Secured, Captain," t'sinji declared. "Conn returned to Helm."

Daw's precise tones said: "Matching velocities now. ETA two minutes."

"Affirmative, Falcon."

Malcolm checked on the medcorder that was now attached to Pop's external suit telemetry circuit. "That shot we gave Pops before we moved him seems to have done some good."

"I hope so," Brenda Sue sighed. "He's all I have left in the world."

Malcolm felt a tender lump forming. It embarrassed him. "Look, they've got us in the tractor beam. It won't be long now."

The Terran's words were proved moments later when t'sinji pressurized the jump bay hanger and came inside to help Malcolm carry the old man out. They moved quickly to one of the lower passenger cabins. On the way, Kirk issued orders.

"Captain to bridge."

"Bridge, sir," came Daw's crisp response.

"Plot and execute minimum arrival course for Baltion. Maximum N-drive is authorized."

"Maximum N-drive authorized. Aye, aye, sir."

Brenda Sue failed to note the nearly instantaneous compliance. Her attention was on the Parani woman who helped the big space-bronzed man take off Pop's pressure suit. "It he going to be alright?"

t'sinji arched ochre-tinted eyebrows expressively. "We're doing the best we can."

Malcolm peeled out of his pressure suit. He helped Brenda Sue remove hers. "Stay here with t'sinji." He carried all three pressure suits under one arm. "Brenda Sue, I'll put your suits in the locker next to the jump boat hatch. Then I have to go to the bridge and deal with Baltion Control."

The girl leaned forward and hugged the embarrassed Earthman about his lean waist. "Thank you!" Brenda Sue sobbed.

Malcolm awkwardly disengaged, chucking the girl under the chin with a comforting smile. t'sinji was amused by the man's discomfort, but she wisely refrained from comment. Kirk left the compartment, stowed the pressure suits, and went to the bridge. Malcolm nodded in response to Daw's greeting.

"Just lie low, Mr. Daw. We don't want the girl to know about you."

"Aye, aye, Captain, though I doubt she'll be leaving her 'Pops' anytime soon."

"What's our ETA at Baltion?"

"Twenty-eight minutes and some nano seconds. We burned quite a bit of fuel. We're close to margin on this trip, Boss."

"We'll manage. Monitor traffic and trajectories. I'll contact Port Authority to have a med-evac stand by."

Malcolm found a text display from t'sinji at his console. "File salvage claim on Mercedes. I doubt Pops will ever be certified to fly again. There may be insurance. We cover costs and give them what's left. If not, we can work something out."

"You saw this?" Malcolm asked Daw. He began setting up for communications with Baltion control.

"I don't snoop unless the privacy flag is open--this one wasn't."

Kirk read it aloud, then added, "For a spend crazy Parani, she sure has her head screwed on tight."

The two--man and bio-comp--did not discuss the matter further as they both became very busy. Daw navigated the Ormic freighter through an increasingly dense field of pre-space junk orbiting Baltion. Kirk was involved with Port Authority, and was rapidly losing his patience.

The officials on Baltion screamed about fines for "reckless endangerment on approach to Baltion..." to which the captain of the Maltese Falcon replied "...make it necessary to file a protest report with Galatica for Baltion Port Authority's failure to render assistance to a ship in distress." In the end Baltion officials retreated from their position and had a medical team waiting when the Falcon grounded on Pad 17.

t'sinji held Brenda Sue's hand as the ambulance crew picked up the old man and jumped from the space port. The Parani woman put a encouraging arm around the girl's shoulder. "You'll like staying with us until Pops can come get you."

Malcolm's eyebrow rose. Before he could speak, the Parani led Brenda Sue into the Maltese Falcon. Calls from clients for the Falcon's cargo kept t'sinji working well past dark. After a hearty dinner of Parani pasta and cheese, Anareke sprouts, and fruit gel dessert Malcom tucked Brenda Sue into the port forward passenger cabin a few compartments away from his and the Parani's quarters.

"Big girl like you will be okay, right? Remember where the refresher is?" Malcom Kirk paused at the door while Brenda Sue, dressed in one of t'sinji's night gowns--and almost too big for it because Parani females are so dainty--climbed into the fold-down bunk.

"Yes, sir. Thanks for everything. Dinner, too. Thank t'sinji for me."

"I will. Goodnight." Kirk smiled at the tiny face on the pneumatic pillow. Equally small hands pulled the sheet up to her chin. He turned out the light and closed the hatch.

"Ain't that sweet," Daw chuckled in the corridor. "Aren't you glad t'sinji took the time to let us know Brenda Sue would be staying with us?"

Malcolm chose not to answer, preferring to voice his thoughts to the woman under discussion. t'sinji was not interested in a conversation while unloading the Falcon. "I'm busy, Captain. Go find something to do."

Kirk went below decks to inspect the Mercedes. The sportabout was in pretty fair condition though it had seen a lot of service. Some of the repairs had been made with used parts, an indication the little ship's owner was on a budget even more tight than the Maltese Falcon's. The log book revealed a more desperate scenario as Pops struggled to keep the ship, and the little girl, operational. Like most ship logs there was as much to read between the lines as was recorded. Apparently Pops had rescued Brenda Sue from another small ship come to some disaster five years earlier. Life had not been easy for either of them. Malcom's thoughts then wandered as to what might happen to the old man and the girl. According to the log Pops had worked in robotics when he could find employment. The girl worked at being a little girl and, in Malcom's opinion, that was work enough.

There was a subtle change in the ship's pressurization. Daw remarked on what Kirk already knew: "t'sinji's sealed the ship. Cargo has been off-loaded. We can't keep the girl here."

"What's done is done. Mr. Daw, you have the watch. Goodnight."

"Aye, aye, sir." The bio-comp managed to sound both miffed and obedient at the same time.

Malcom walked toward his quarters, shutting off unessential lighting as he went. In the dimly lit corridor outside their cabin, Kirk paused, taking a deep breath. He was prepared to state his case--until he opened the door and saw t'sinji standing demurely in the center of room, dressed for bed.

"It's only a few days until her guardian recovers," she said. "Word from hospital is encouraging."

"Good to know. Still, you should have talked it over with me."

"When did we have time? If you really think it's a breach of security I can run her over to Baltion Child Protective Services right now."

Malcolm thought of that sweet child in the clutches of the Baltion government and shuddered. "Never mind. Brenda Sue is asleep." Still, it was hard to let go of the thought. "You should have warned me."

t'sinji smiled and slipped out of her nightgown and held out her arms. Malcolm instantly put aside his concerns regarding Brenda Sue. When an exotic woman like t'sinji offered, no sane gonad refused.

The following morning the Falcon's humanoid crew found Brenda Sue having breakfast in the galley. t'sinji sat down and dialed up meals for herself and Malcolm. "Did you sleep well?" the Parani asked.

"Yes, ma'am," the girl replied. "It was alright for me to eat, isn't it? That nice Mr. Daw said it was okay."

"Of course it was," t'sinji replied. "Did Mr. Daw help you?"

"He told me where everything was over the intercom because he's stuck in engineering. He's a very funny man."

"You met?" Kirk asked, with a sideways glance toward t'sinji.

"Not really," Brenda Sue replied, her mouth also working on a piece of buttered toast and jam. "He heard me crying last night and talked to me for a while until I went back to sleep."

"That's my pal Rex," Malcolm smiled. "A real family man." Kirk had nearly finished his breakfast when Daw's voice came over the intercom.

"Company, Boss. Port Authority and what looks like a flatfoot."

"Oh?" Malcom glanced at Brenda Sue who either did not understand Terran slang or deliberately appeared to not understand Terran slang. "Be right there. t'sinji, you stay here with Brenda Sue."

Daw did not speak again until Kirk was near the ship's passenger hatch. "t'sinji didn't listen, Boss. She's in the control room playing with my Thorden board."

"At your suggestion?" Kirk asked. "Never mind. Brenda Sue?"

"In the library tearing pages out of your vintage copy of Alice in Wonderland. Just kidding, Boss!" Daw exclaimed when the Terran's step faltered. "She's in her cabin. Head's up. They're here."

"Open the hatch."

The Port Authority man was startled at the swiftly opening hatch. At his side was a lesser official carrying a brief which appeared to bulge. At the rear, attempting to look uninterested was a large slab of man with a slight reddish tinge to his skin--probably born on one of the heavy worlds around Anareke like Plorian or Deros. Malcom glanced to the horizon and remarked:

"A little early for a courtesy call, sir. What can I do for you?"

"Captain Kirk, I presume?"

"I believe on your world it is proper etiquette to identify yourself first, then inquire."

The Baltionite flushed darkly. "Port Captain Pevin. Welcome to Baltion. May we come aboard?"

"I'll think about it, provided you can explain the presence of this esteemed officer of the law."

Pevin's flush deepened. "We have it on good authority that a young human female was on the ship you rescued yesterday. It is with her we wish to speak."

The law officer gently moved the port captain aside with an unyielding hand. "I'll handle this, Pevin. The girl was in the company of an old man. She is a dangerous criminal. We believe she has murdered at least a hundred life forms over the last six months."

Pevin sputtered, looking startled. "That's not what you told me! You said there was a reward for the girl's return if found. What is this?"

The officer glared at the port officials. "Would you have helped me if you had known how dangerous this girl is? Why, with a single thought from her powerful mind she can teleport you into the next dimension. Thank you for service, Port Captain. I suggest you let me handle this." The dismissal was obvious. The Baltion authorities were only too happy to comply. The officer waited until the two men had disappeared from sight behind the stern of the freighter on Pad 16.

"Captain Kirk, I don't want to know if there is a little girl on board. All that dangerous criminal stuff was for their amusement. Permit me?" He made a half gesture to the inside of his jacket tunic. "I have a feeling several weapons are aimed at me right now."

"Good guess. We don't shoot at the law unless there's a good reason. Go ahead."

The officer produced a wallet. "Thirty-thousand credits, the best I could do on short notice. That old man you know as Pops was once highly regarded by the rebels of Ploria during their fight for independence. We don't forget our heroes, usually, but Pops left at a time when there was a very large price on his head. The other heroes of the revolution decided he was too heroic to have around. All we ask is passage for him to any world one hundred lights away from this sector of space. I hope the credits will cover expenses for him--and whoever might be traveling with him."

"Our next jump is significantly farther than a hundred lights..." Malcom arched a brow and waited.

"Patrolman Lim Ne, sir. I've taken the liberty of having Pops escorted to your ship, along with all the medical supplies he'll need...which won't be much since he's a tough old man. As for the girl... There is a reward but not the kind you'd like to collect. Say you will transport this old man. If you do, Captain Kirk, also know the gratitude of Pop's friends."

A small flitter dropped between the spires of ships. Kirk and Lim Ne watched as two men guided a floating litter up the scaffolding to the personnel hatch. Pop's eyes grew round as he saw the law officer.

"Lim!"

"Good to see you, General. You have passage off-world..." Malcom nodded "...anywhere you wish to go."

"My daughter?"

The patrolman raised his hand, displaying a ring on his finger. "Be well, sir. Captain Kirk, I suggest a quick departure."

"We still have cargo to load, but can lift by noon--"

"Incoming, Boss!" Daw's voice echoed in the corridors of the Maltese Falcon. Almost simultaneously the whine of lasers scorched the tarmac and scaffolding about the ship's stern. Kirk did not have to give orders, the Falcon's weaponry was already in response.

The two escorting Pops shoved the litter toward the open hatch, turning to raise their side arms. Both were cut down. Kirk felt an enormously strong hand shove him inside the ship just as a laser cut across Pop's legs. Patrolman Lim Ne entered the ship and slapped the hatch actuator. "Best you lift off, Captain Kirk!"

"Daw, get us out of here!"

"Grab hold, Boss. I'm powered and ready."

"Go!"

The take-off was rough. The ascent was rough as the ship evaded two others. Meanwhile, Kirk and Ne did rough first aid on Pops and somehow got him to the ward room. "I'll watch him," the law man said. "Fight your ship!"

Kirk ran for the control room.

As fights go, the Maltese Falcon had seen worse. Twenty minutes later one of the ships pursuing had been disabled and the second stopped to give aid. t'sinji had plotted a course and at Kirk's grim nod, put the Falcon into hyperspace. The ship's captain and second then went below to get answers.

Brenda Sue was at Pop's side, silently holding his hand. Rivers of quiet tears streamed from her brown eyes, magnifying the horde of freckles on her cheeks. The patrolman continued supplying first aid, but there was no hope in his eyes when he looked up at Kirk and t'sinji's entrance.

"I will, Pops," the girl said. "I'll be brave. Just please don't die!"

"Everything has a time, Brenda Sue. Remember?" came the labored reply.

"I remember." The girl wiped her nose.

The old man turned his head toward Lim Ne. "You'll have to look after her when I'm gone. You'll do that."

"Yes, sir." The patrolman's voice hardened. "They'll pay for this, General."

Pops sighed. "Let it go. No profit--and you have too much to lose if you haven't already lost it."

"I did not come unprepared, sir..."

"Apparently you did," the old man's voice held a hint of the authority he once commanded. "You can't plan for everything. I know that all too well. Just take care of Brenda Sue and my daughter and that's all I could ever wish for. Now go away. I want to talk to Brenda Sue."

Lim Ne approached Kirk and t'sinji--carefully since Malcom's fist held a worn service blaster in a tight fist. "I'll answer your questions in the corridor."

Kirk stepped aside then followed the patrolman. "Who is that old man, Ne? What the hell is going on? You've put my ship and crew in danger."

"That old man is General Da Oug."

"But he's dead!" t'sinji exclaimed. "He was assassinated after the Plorians defeated Faras of Anareke."

Ne glanced toward the ward room hatch. "He wasn't killed but he soon will die. I was to meet him here with the funds I gave you. You know what happened."

t'sinji crossed her arms. "Who is the girl?"

"We never knew. The general returned from space one day and there she was. He took care of her ever since."

"That doesn't answer the real question, Ne. You've placed us in a very serious situation. I want to know that you're going to do about it. I'm just a gnat's whisker away from throwing you out the airlock."

"I wouldn't blame you, Captain Kirk. These men were after General Da Oug, not your ship. Get me to a port with Oug's body and I'll show the proof the bastards seek, which is sure knowledge the general is dead. You see, they've lived in fear that he would return to take back what should have been his, the rule of Ploria. Now that he's dead I can assure you they will not pursue the matter any further."

"And the girl? What of her?"

"As I promised the general, I will take care of her."

"Pops? Oh, Pops!" The three adults sadly listened to the young girl's heart-wrenching lament.

* * * * * * * *

"Where's our passengers?" Kirk spoke aloud in the empty control room.

"Ne is eating lunch with t'sinji. Brenda Sue is sitting with Oug's body."

"Is the girl all right?"

"Seems to be. She's reciting a burial prayer...a bit badly since it seems to be something half-remembered."

"What do you mean?"

"Sounds like a Terran rite to me, Christian if I remember correctly. She's either from Earth or one of the Earth colonies."

"Not many Terrans in this sector of the galaxy, Rex. But she is okay, right?"

"Other than that sultry red-head I knew back on Mars this little girl is more than all right. She's a trooper."

"How soon to jumpdown? I'm anxious to unload this cargo as soon as possible."

"You know as well as I do, Boss. Two hours and a bit. Grab a nap. You haven't slept in sixty hours. I'll watch the kid and t'sinji, and Patrolman Ne. Particularly Ne."

Malcom settled into the pilot's seat. He had no intention of sleeping. "Eh? You dislike him as much as I do?"

"I don't dislike him, Malcom. I just have a feeling."

"Yeah. Me, too."

* * * * * * * *

Trans-Station 177 was identical to hundreds of other artificial habitats along major trade routes which served as way stations and repair centers. The Maltese Falcon lay at the end of a steel cable tether, one of several dozen ships attached to the large station. Kirk drummed the hard plastics of the control console with one hand while rubbing his chin with the other. He pointedly ignored the conversation between t'sinji and Brenda Sue, a whispered conversation that was punctuated by occasional giggles. The kid was okay. Malcom could not help liking the plucky girl who had been through so much, yet could still laugh. However, Kirk was eager to have Brenda Sue and Ne off the Falcon as soon as possible so the ship's crew could resume their lives.

"Captain," Daw's voice interjected. "Incoming messages. Your ears only."

"Who is it?"

"Lim Ne."

Kirk looked over his shoulder and nodded as t'sinji escorted Brenda Sue below decks. "Open a channel."

Malcom frowned. There was no visual with the message, but there was no doubt the voice was that of Patrolman Ne. "Kirk, sorry to deceive you like this, but it was necessary. My men and I intended to commandeer your ship and bring General Oug to justice. Unfortunately, it seems his followers discovered our plan and attempted to stop us."

"You? I thought you were married to his daughter?"

"I am. She believes her father is dead. I was only going to make that belief come true."

"Sneaky devil. Where are you?"

"On one of the four ships which have departed the station and are about to jumpup. You, of course, know where I am going. You are welcome to come find me if you like. I wouldn't suggest it. I will keep my promise that you and your ship won't be pursued. Your use to us is over."

"What of the girl. You promised to take her."

Malcom heard a laugh that made the hair on the back of his neck rise in anger. "I pick which promises I keep. I will warn you, however, that her name is not Brenda Sue and is likely to be more trouble than having General Da Oug on board."

"Who is she?"

"The granddaughter of Ryl Tules of Kretaj Combine."

"What am I supposed to do with her? Damn it, Ne! Every pirate and warship of Kretaj will be after me--and I've already had enough trouble with them!"

"I'd space her. Well, we're about to jumpup. Keep the thirty thousand credits. Good luck, Captain Kirk."

Kirk's curses fell on static issuing from the communications receiver.

* * * * * * * * *

The lights in the galley were on dim. Malcom did not enjoy the steaming cup of coffee, but it occupied hands that wanted to throttle a throat. "That's the whole story, t'sinji. Now you know why I waited until Brenda Sue was asleep. What are we going to do with the kid?"

Rex Daw made a suggestion. "I wouldn't be surprised if Ryl Tules was generous in gratuity at the return of his granddaughter."

Malcom's scowl deepened. "He is just as likely to skin us alive and space what's left over."

The Parani shook her head. "Either way that sweet child will be in the hands of one of the most evil men in all known space. No good can come of that, Malcom. And Rex, I want you to think of what kind of woman Brenda Sue would become under the influence of such a man and society. Think about it."

After a long pause Rex groaned unhappily. "She'd probably be worse than that blonde vixen I knew on Rigel Three. Ugh! t'sinji's right, Malcom. We can't give that girl to Ryl Tules."

"What do you suggest? She can't stay on board. We--"

"Why not?" t'sinji interjected. "She's Terran...or Terran-stock like you. Who better to take care of Brenda Sue than one of her own kind?"

"Me?" Malcom squirmed in his seat. "You got to be kidding, dear. I can't take care of myself much less..."

"Which is why t'sinji and I take care of you, Boss." Daw's chuckle to the captain's obscene gesture in reply filled the galley. "Physical impossibility for me these days, Malcom. Seriously, why can't we keep her? I'm a good baby sitter."

"You couldn't wipe her nose if she had a cold, Mr. Daw. And you know how dangerous it would be for her to know about you. There's any number of worlds, paramilitary units, and the Kretaj Combine, too, that would love to get their hands on a top-level Terran bio-computer, especially one interfaced with a Thorden IV Fire Control System. Want to trust that information to a slip of a girl?"

"Brenda Sue wouldn't talk," Rex replied with confidence. "She's too smart. Well, it's your decision. Just thought you'd like my input. I'll shut up now."

Malcom waited but Daw was true to his statement. Turning to the Parani the captain of the Maltese Falcon narrowed his eyes. "Brenda Sue is not cargo, dear. She's not a passenger. We don't need another mouth to feed, particularly one related to a monster like Ryl Tules. Don't give me that look!" The Terran's face went through several emotions ranging from authority to stubborn resolve. "Damn kid."

Angrily, t'sinji rose. Picking up Malcom's coffee cup, she put it in the sonic washer. "That damn kid is downship in the library putting the finishing touches on your surprise. I hope you don't choke on it. Coming, Rex?"

"Right behind you, ma'am!"

The big man sat at the table for a few minutes then sighed. A kid on the Falcon. Next thing you know we'll be doing charity work.

The lights were out in the library. Before Malcom could slap the switch, the chamber was flooded with illumination. Brenda Sue used an igniter on the candle upright in a cake, joining in with t'sinji and Rex singing an old Earth tune, "Happy Birthday."

Malcom Kirk stood silent until the last refrain. t'sinji's eager face and smile melted his resolve and the captain of the Falcon blew out the candle. "It's not my birthday."

"You never would say," the Parani woman replied, "so today will be your birthday until you decide to be specific. I love you, darling."

Brenda Sue clapped her hands as the blue skinned woman kissed the tall Terran. "You have presents!" the girl said.

t'sinji seated the three of them about the table and began cutting the cake. "Aren't you going to open your presents, Malcom?"

"In a minute." Malcom looked at the bright face of Brenda Sue and remembered how strong she'd been on the sportabout and bravely stoic when her Pops died. Any kid who could go through all that and still smile was a kid worth keeping.

"Brenda Sue, I have news. Lim Ne had to leave quickly and couldn't take you with him. He asked me to take care of you. Would you like to stay on as youngest crew member of the Maltese Falcon?

"With you and t'sinji and Rex? Why yes, yes, yes!" The child jumped up and threw her arms around Malcom's neck.

"At ease, crewman!" Malcom's voice was not as gruff as intended. Brenda Sue made every effort to stand at attention. "None of that when you're on duty. Understood?"

"Yes, sir. What do I call you?"

Malcom Kirk shook his head. "You may call me 'Captain' or 'Uncle Malcom'. Now come here," he said, picking Brenda Sue up and putting her in his lap. "Help me open these presents."