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Trover, image by David Bruce Bozarth, 2000


David Bruce Bozarth

First Published at Paul Norman's Gateway September, October, November 2000. This edition is first time illustrated by Kurt "Jake" Jacobson, 2001

A tale the Grand Master might have written during the 1980s--a little off-world adventure featuring a thick-headed hero and the always surprising young heroine!

The qeek wood panels flew at Malcolm Kirk with incredible velocity; more precisely: Kirk did the flying. Malcolm managed to raise an arm to protect his face just before the brutal impact then he hit the unyielding pavement outside the Parani Wharfside bar with bruising force.

His space jacket followed seconds later, delivered with an accurate aim, with his space-bronzed face as the target. In the wake of the jacket a multitude of colorful invectives, in several languages, scathingly vilified Kirk and his ancestors of centuries past as free-loading no-goods. Malcolm was in no immediate condition to respond to the denunciation of his family — as if it mattered, he was creche-raised and didn't know who his parents were.

His skull throbbed incessantly and a small crowd of Wharfside low-lifers passing Ferric's Bar rudely chuckled at his embarrassing predicament. Kirk attempted to focus his eyes, then gave up in frustration while he tried to pull himself up. Fighting nausea, he weakly collapsed to the amusement of jaded on-lookers.

You picked a bad place to get tossed out on your ear, old son. Then: I'm gonna get rolled...

He thought of crawling away, but that went against his grain. Malcolm swallowed his pride, his anger, and his fear; resigned to the inevitable.

Serve them right when they find out I haven't got a credit to my name...

"Move on, you wharf rats!"

The voice was soft and melodic, quite different from the rough and raspy male voices known to Malcolm over more than twenty years of spacing. A few of the on-lookers made rude noises in reply, jeering.

The voice hardened. "I'm warning you — I'll have the Patrol down on you so quick you'll never —" The rest of the sentence remained unstated, due, in part, to the lack of an attentive audience.

Malcolm Kirk slowly raised his head as heavy boots scurried away. One pair of boots remained near his head. As his eyes traveled up the slim, small foot to tapered ankle, then upward to floppy boot tops, he painfully discovered he would have to sit erect if he were to continue his observations. Though he had never developed a taste for the filthy Wharfside pavement, he regrettably lacked the strength to remove himself from the cold embrace of the duracrete. A pair of small hands slipped under his arms and tugged him to a sitting position.

"Can you get up?" the Parani female inquired.

"What do you think?" Malcolm replied in uneven tones.

"How should I know?" the young woman snickered without sympathy. "Come on," she said in Basic, lifting with surprisingly strong hands. She urged the tall Earthman to his feet. "You can't stay here," she added.

Malcolm was distrustful of the assistance, even from one so lovely as the exotic creature beside him. "Why should you care?" he asked.

Amendment: I'm the exotic. All Earthmen are exotic everywhere except Earth. Second Amendment: Girl — not woman — though you never can tell with aliens. Wait a minute — he reminded himself —I'm the alien here.

She, a very obvious she as evidenced by the tight one-piece overall common to the natives, offered a tired smile; though her eyes were more intent on the curious passer bys than the hulking spacer. "Can you give me one good reason why I shouldn't?"

Malcolm swayed unsteadily, caught unawares by the question. "No," he tried a chuckle; it made his eyes hurt. "I guess I can't. Thanks."

"Thank me later. Can you walk?"

"Depends on who does it and how far—" Malcolm tested his legs and found them none too cooperative.

The tiny woman, compared with Malcolm's 190 centimeters and 102 kilos, slipped her cap-covered head under Kirk's shoulder and threw an arm about his lean waist. "Just across the street," she said. "My scooter's parked there. I'll get you back to your ship. These Wharfside bandits'll cut your throat for your boots and uniform."

"Why get involved?" Malcolm squeezed his eyes tightly as a lance of pain threatened to steal his consciousness.

"I don't know," she replied bluntly honest. "Get your feet moving, spacer." She pushed, and Malcolm's legs responded to her rough guidance. "What ship?" she asked between clenched teeth when she took the man's weight on her body.

Malcolm shook his head, instantly aware how foolishly stupid the gesture was when the ground swirled maddeningly at his feet. "No ship. No berth. Been Dumped."

"Not surprised," she grunted, using both hands at his ribs to keep the hard-muscled man erect. "Big dumb thing like you walking into Ferric's alone..." She laughed condescendingly. "It's a wonder you came out with as little damage as you show. All right, then," she sighed, "I'll drop you off at the Guild Hall."

Malcolm carefully looked down at the young woman. The horizon remained level and allowed him to note, with lecherous pleasure, her finely-sculpted features. The women of Paran are famous galaxy wide as the most alluring of all the bi-sexual races. For an instant he was distracted by her beauty until reaching the curb, and then he was reminded of her offer. He was again forced to utter a negative to the helpful Parani.

"For me there are no vacancies at the Guild Hall." Malcolm's left knee chose that moment to come unhinged. Only the woman's firm support, and the happy coincidence of a handy steel railing, prevented another tumble to the duracrete.

The woman impatiently waited for Kirk to regain his balance. "You must have been a very bad boy," she observed, then urged him on. "What were you doing in Ferric's?"

"Madam," Malcolm rambled, shifting haphazardly between English and Stellar Basic, "I proceeded into yonder bistro with the intention of spending the last of my meager funds in the purchase of a dram of liquid libation to ease the torment of the inner man, caused by a series of recent events and misunderstandings beyond my control. After imbibing the delightful refreshment I discovered, to my acute mortification, and the annoyance of the proprietor, that one of the unwashed local riff-raf had absconded with the pitiful remnants of my capital. At that precise moment of financial embarrassment the bar keep, with the zealous aid of two exceedingly brawny compatriots—both large and rambunctious—grasped me by the seat of the pants and, with great verge and vigor, essayed to place me into a circum-polar orbit by the power of their muscles. Alas, they failed in that endeavor, forgetting to calculate the resistance of a rather firm obstacle, as represented by those sturdy qeek wood doors."

The woman gaped her bewilderment. "I understand about one word in ten. Don't bother explaining—I don't think I want to know."

"I will carefully rephrase, madam. I was bashed for being flat-busted."

"Oh," the Parani grunted as Kirk stumbled. Strong as the girl might be, his mass was too much for the woman to support. Malcolm realized this, making a supreme effort to pull away and stand on his own.

"You run along like a good little girl," he said. "You've been kind and gracious to a stranger in your land. Thank your for your generosity."

She glared at him with exasperation. The Parani grabbed his elbow and shoved towards the street. "Can't leave you here like this, spacer. You won't last five minutes." To reinforce her statement, she nodded to the group of uncouth beings of multi-planetary origin who were watching them from a short distance away.

Malcolm needed no interpretation regarding the callous grins and gestures the individuals shared amongst themselves—or the cause behind the numerous glances in his direction.

Don't flatter yourself, Kirk. They could be looking at the girl.

Which suddenly made him slightly fearful for her safety. Earthmen were not exactly welcome on Paran. Given that general feeling, it might also expand to cover native born Parani seen with Earthmen. He cleared his throat, the extra surge of adrenaline doing much to clear his mind.

"You may be correct in that assumption, dear lady. Which way to your vehicle?"

"Across the street," she repeated, pointing with a slim-fingered hand. "Can you make it all right?"

"Don't have much choice, do I?" Malcolm groaned as he contemplated the whizzing traffic. "Shall we?"

Crossing one of Port City's Wharfside streets is hazardous, the accomplishment of which is an acquired art. The drivers of small, high-powered scooters take great delight in seeing how closely they can approach a pedestrian without smearing same all over the pavement. A sigh of relief escaped the spacer's lips when he finally laid his head back on the worn cushions of the girl's older model scooter.

The Parani lowered the top, slapped the bubble's seal, and strapped herself down with one fluid motion. She leaned across the center console and tugged Kirk's seat harness into place. "It's a rough ride out of Wharfside," she explained.

The vehicle's dented, chipped-paint exterior did not inspire confidence on first inspection, nor was this improved substantially when one noted the crack radiating upward through the canopy bubble on the passenger's side, but the power plant hummed efficiently and all the panel lights were green.

She was completing her pre-lift check when Malcolm saw a half-dozen shapes dodging the same traffic he and the Parani girl had just successfully negotiated. The bad guys were converging on the scooter. "Forgive me, madam, but it seems we have company on the way."

The girl looked up, saw the figures and hissed. "Flek! Hold on!"

The power plant's hum rose to an ear-splitting pitch as the woman revved for torque. She slammed the control bar forward. Angry fists and tentacles made obscene gestures as the group scattered out of the scooter's path. The woman twisted the machine's tail and, with gyros screaming, shot through the frustrated bandits and entered the frenzied traffic of Wharfside.

Malcolm Kirk found it mildly incomprehensible that he—a man who'd jockeyed starships at incredible velocities—was experiencing motion-sickness for the first time in his life. To make his disorientation even more implausible was the knowledge that most ground-effect vehicles never achieved speeds in excess of 220 kilometers per hour. The puzzlement of this unusual development was overshadowed by his desperate struggle to cope with the unpleasant sensation of his last meal attempting to exit his body in an unorthodox manner.

The Parani woman seemed blithely unaware of the impending disaster to her scooter's interior. Without taking her eyes from the swirling chaos which passed for traffic in Port City's Wharfside district she announced, "My name's t'sinji. What's yours, Earthman?"

"Malcolm Kirk, late of the Ormic freighter Nelson." He considered the subtle richness of the woman's name in her own language and tried it. "Tess In Gee? Singe Ee? Sorry, I'll never get it right. May I call you 'Cindy'? It's an ancient and honored name among humans."

"Cindy—" she smiled, her face coming alive in the confusion of lights and shadows moving at breakneck speed. "I like that. You may call me 'Cindy', Malcolm Kirk."

Malcolm's question, 'Where are we going?' died in mid-breath as the girl abruptly switched course. The power-plant complained as the scooter took the ramp at 110 klicks, going from ground level to eighty feet in the blink of an eye. They were above the streets on a twelve lane feeder that cut through the heart of Port City. Though the velocity was greater, there was less distraction as the feeder ran ruler straight toward the northwest. The woman relaxed her grip on the control bar even as Kirk managed to release his white-knuckled grip on the edges of the seat. He bid a silent farewell to his stomach, gone forever at the foot of the ramp. There were crazies travelling the feeder, speedsters who came from nowhere at incredible velocity and those others, who moved more sedately than t'sinji's chosen speed. How the woman managed to avoid catastrophic collision time after time was a source of anxious amazement for the spacer.

As the feeder eased into a gentle curve to the left, the Parani glanced at her passenger. "If I can't leave you at the Guild Hall, where can you stay? Know anyone on Paran?"

"Just the people at the Guild Hall. Due to a slight misunderstanding between my shipmates and myself, the Guild Director elected to refuse accommodations."

"Why? I thought you spacers took care of each other."

Malcolm blushed uncomfortably. "The director felt the denial of access was compensatory punishment for the alleged crime I was supposed to have committed."

"Crime? What crime?" she was more amused than concerned. "Is that why you were dumped?"

Malcolm's flush deepened from chin to forehead. "It really wasn't a crime, so to speak. I—uh—I was the bookie for the Nelson. You know how boring things get on long hauls. You take entertainment where you can find it. Let's just say I had a run of bad luck and attempted to recoup losses by—" he paused, grinning with a shrug of his shoulders "—rigging the outcome of a freefall cockroach race. Unbeknownst to me, however, my fellow shipmates discovered the extent of my harmless machinations. They refrained from informing of Second of this fact until after we'd grounded on Paran. They then demanded full restitution—something I had intended to accomplish after the resolution of a rather pressing personal problem. Unfortunately, I was unable to satisfy their requirements as I had already forwarded a substantial sum off-planet by Questern-Union."

"Couldn't you have stopped the transfer?"

"That's another story altogether," Kirk replied, his embarrassment more acute. "Suffice it to say that Lady Aldrin felt confident I could prevail on the good-nature of my shipmates. She refused to release the funds on the basis that extricating myself from this unfortunate quandary would be character-building. Needless to say, my shipmates were dismally receptive to the situation. Thus, dear lady, this poor soul before you was beset upon and forcibly divested of all remaining funds, with the sole exception of a very soiled ten-credit note — I hope it is not necessary to explain how it came to be soiled—and was then expelled from the ship's company. Since then I've spent my time at the Hiring Hall in hopes of catching a berth off world."

"Where would you be headed?" she asked, eyes bright and interested. "I've never been off world before."

"Baltion or Anarek. I'd stand an even chance in the job market there. Terrestrials aren't treated as third class citizens there." Malcolm belated realized who was the recipient of this bitterness. Sorry, madam. I meant no offense."

"None taken," she giggled. "Earthmen aren't the only ones getting a raw deal on Paran." She elaborated: "There's thousands of spacers, all races, who are being passed over in favor of Parani. Goes with the new government quotas for employment."

Malcolm's thick brows met over his strong nose, which had been broken several times in the past. The young woman (she looked grown up to him, but he couldn't be sure) puzzled him. "You seem to know a lot about spacers, Cindy."

"I've always wanted to go into space," she replied, then deftly turned the conversation away from her and back to the Earthman. "So, it was a woman. I might have guessed. I hear you spacers have a girl in every port. No—" she waved his instant objection aside "—spare me the details, thank you."

Malcolm smiled, thinking to himself. Who'd have thought I'd meet a woman with the soul of discretion 40,000 lights from home?

He sincerely expressed his gratitude. "Thanks for getting me out of there, Cindy. It was looking truly grim for a while. Where are we going?"

The Parani's smile faded between the words "grim" and "going." Her eyes stared through the yellowed canopy, following the path of her running lights. Malcolm looked in the same direction and saw nothing more than a late model scooter which had just passed, then pulled into their lane ahead of them. With growing excitement Cindy gestured to the clipboard hanging from the dash near Malcolm's left knee.

"Hand me that chart!" she demanded. "Quick!" she snapped when he was slow to respond.

Malcolm bit back his sudden anger. "You don't have to be so—"

Cindy jerked the chart from his hand and ignored the personal protest. She drove with one hand while flipping through the sheets—an exercise which made Malcolm desperately wish the woman was Vegan: equipped with extra eyes, hands and brains.

Kirk watched the insane traffic with morbid fascination. He was positive this was to be the site of his premature demise. Cindy cursed as they followed the other vehicle down an off ram into the dimly lit streets on the outskirts of Wharfside.

"Where the hell are we going?" Malcolm asked.

Cindy continued to follow the expensive-looking scooter and look through the list of numbers on her clipboard. He tensed as Cindy nonchalantly avoided a collision. "I've got it! I've finally got it!" she laughed.

"Got what?"

"Can you drive a scooter?" Cindy replied with a question.

"Sure, but I don't know about here in Port City—"

"Not to worry, you just follow me."

"Follow you? Cindy, you're not making any sense." Malcolm's head was throbbing. He wanted to be back on board the Nelson asleep in his too-cramped bunk. "What are you dithering about?"

"You'll see in a moment," she applied brakes, matching speeds with the scooter in front that was coming to a stop. She pulled into the curb. "Now we watch." She snapped off the dome light and the scooter was in darkness.

The Parani cracked the bubble top and picked up a small bag from the floor by her feet. "Take the controls," she told the confused Earthman. She didn't look at Malcolm, her eyes were fixed on the vehicle sixty meters down the street.

"See that scooter?" Cindy nodded her head toward the scooter where two people were exiting. The Parani released her seat harness and climbed out of her vehicle. "As soon as they are gone, I'm going to take it. You follow me. Don't stop for nothing, and for Ird's Sake, don't get lost!"

"Cindy—!" Malcolm thought If she's crazy enough to help an Earthman, she's crazy enough to steal a scooter! What have I gotten myself into? He tried to grab her hand, but the woman pulled away, displaying a supple agility no Terrestrial human could equal. "I'm in enough trouble. Don't get me involved in theft too!"

"They stole it," Cindy explained in clipped tones. She rounded the scooter and stepped into the shadows of the warehouse fronting the street. "Get ready," she whispered, then started down the deserted sidewalk.

Malcolm rubbed the side of his head to ease the pain and confusion. Only the pain eased; he was as confused as ever. Cindy took it for granted he would follow her instructions since she stealthily proceeded without looking back to see if Malcolm entered the driver's seat. While he was trying to make up his mind, Kirk watched the two unsavory characters enter the rundown building next to the warehouse. As soon as they were out of sight, Cindy broke into a run. She pulled something from her small case and bent over the scooter's access lock.

Malcolm was of half a mind to leave the Parani's vehicle and make tracks as far from this location as possible, but he hesitated. After all, she had helped him. Suddenly his decision was forced upon him: one of the men came back. He yelled and started towards Cindy, who was inside the scooter. The man pulled something from beneath his jacket and a wicked blue gleam leapt from his hand. He started toward Cindy.

Good guys don't carry illegal weapons!

Malcolm scrambled into the driver's seat. The bubble top was coming down as he slammed the scooter forward. Kirk swiftly turned onto the sidewalk, bearing down on the man with the vibro-blade about to climb in beside Cindy.

The man on the sidewalk had no difficulty in making decisions. Ninety-three kilos of protoplasm versus one-thousand kilos of speeding machinery are hardly in the realm of immovable object and irresistible force; he sprang back into the shelter of the warehouse entrance.

Malcolm zoomed past as Cindy twisted her scooter onto the street and screeched into the night. She swiftly passed Malcolm, who clung to her tail lights with an iron grip on the control bar. Ten minutes later, Malcolm was back in the passenger seat of the Parani's sedate appearing, but quite sound scooter, with the elated woman behind the controls.

"We've been trying to get that scooter for ages!" Her triumph was effervescent. "You must be my lucky piece, Malcolm Kirk! Thanks for helping. Hey, why are you so pale?"

"Usually happens when I'm scared half-to-death! What the hell was that all about?"

"Defaulted on payments. I work for Marva's Merchandizer's Protection Agency. We have a contract to recover unpaid products. Up until tonight, none of us had even glimpsed that machine. You know the rest, we took it to the local Port Patrol office and got a receipt. They'll make sure it gets picked up by the manufacturer. Me—I get a fat bonus!"

Malcolm sighed. "I'm not sure I understand. Say, where are you taking me now? I'm not sure my old heart can take another adventure like that."

Cindy was too excited to hear the Earthman's unvoiced plea to reduce speed. She laughed. "Out to my place. You look terrible. Give you a place to sleep and a hot meal. I owe you that much at least. Besides, I can't leave you here for those Wharfside rats—not in the shape you're in."

"Well..." Malcolm settled into the seat. "Thanks. I—look out!" Kirk involuntarily closed his eyes as their scooter bore down on a weaving pedestrian in the middle of the road. When the expected Crunch! of bone and blood failed to occur, the spacer slowly opened his eyes. The pedestrian, unharmed, was far astern.

"What did you do on the Nelson?" Cindy seemed blithely unaware of her participation in the near homicide.

"I was Acting Cargo Master and Pilot, Third."

"Pilot?" t'sinji's eyes glowed. "Good berth! How the flek did you get in so much trouble?"

Malcolm thought he'd already explained this. "You know how boredom—no, I guess you don't. I was head of the recreational diversions for..."

"That's not what I meant, spacer." Cindy was impatient. "If you're rated as a Pilot, why take a berth as Cargo—Acting Cargo at that?"

"You cut to the core of things, don't you?" Malcolm chuckled despite himself. "That's a story I'm not willing to elaborate in any great detail. Suffice it to say I've been taking berths like that for the last six years—though I assure you it is not because of any blots on my flight record."

"Okay," she grinned. "I won't pry, for now. Hang on, Malcolm Kirk. This is where we get off."

Kirk had already learned to heed the Parani's infrequent warnings. With gyros screaming and ominous creaks running through the chassis, Cindy looped the scooter off the express onto a secondary straightway leading due west from the city. Ten standard minutes later the over-heated engine whined down outside a twenty-meter styro-dome in a not-quite-but-very-nearly rundown subdivision.

"The shower is upstairs," Cindy suggested, eloquently wrinkling a pert nose. She tossed the scooter's ignition set on the extruded shelf by the front door and passed into the interior of the dome. "I'll put something on to eat. If you'll leave your uniform out, I'll drop it in the 'fresher. Use the second bedroom on the left.

"What's to the right?" Malcolm asked as he mounted the stairs.

"My room—and it is off limits. Ten minutes."

"I shall do my best, gentle lady."

Malcolm glanced into t'sinji's room, after all, it was only a meter to the right and the door was open. It was neat and practical. The girl was apparently not as possession conscious as the rest of her race; one Parani spacer he'd shipped with had cheerfully accepted a personal weight penalty of fifty kilos!

The hallway, which encircled the top of the styro-dome, was unadorned. The windows were opaque and it appeared the transparency controls were either defective or disconnected. Kirk entered the second bedroom. It was furnished with a single bed, a pre-formed closet, and a rather battered chest, which was empty. The door to the right opened into a bath which, after he looked, proved to have another door at the other end that connected with t'sinji's room. Malcolm closed that door then removed his soiled flight suit. He tossed his garments on the bare mattress then stepped into the shower.

The water was scented with a more feminine fragrance than he would have personally chosen; however, since the controls were labeled in Parani—which Kirk could not read—Malcolm left the aromatic dial alone. Cindy might have Vederian musk in the scent chambers and he had no desire to smell like left over garbage. Kirk did relish the hot, driving spray without complaint. It felt good to be clean again.

After his shower, as promised, his flight suit had been sanitized. It was laid out on the freshly-made bed. Malcolm crammed his too long and too hairy legs into the trousers then shrugged into the tunic. He checked his appearance in the bath's vanity mirror.

"Not bad for an old spacer," he grinned at the reflection. A second look was followed by a third, which was followed by a frown. "Then again," he wryly admitted, "not particularly outstanding either."

Malcolm shrugged his broad shoulders then descended to the first floor. As he crossed the expansive community room, Kirk heard the Parani woman cursing the kitchen unit extruded from the shell of the styro-dome. He noted her frustrated look.

"What's the matter?" Malcolm asked.

Cindy delivered a vicious kick to the defroster unit installed beneath the counter top. Furiously, she faced his amused smile. "Damn 'froster is acting up again! I just had it repaired for the third time. I could have bought a new one for all I've spent on it."

Malcolm grinned at her malevolent look which boded ill for the recalcitrant unit. He gently chuckled and stepped around her. He knelt down and examined the front of the unit.

"Same as the one on the Nelson." He raised his head, a sympathetic smile on his thin lips. "We generally had things half-frozen or solid as a rock until I tinkered with it. I think can fix it, if you like."

"Can you?" Cindy's doubt was exhibited by her cautious tone. "I thought you were a pilot."

"I am," he chuckled, "but during all those years spacing I managed to pick up a thing or two. Want me to give it a try?"

"If you can fix it so I'll never have to eat something not quite thawed again, be my guest."

Cindy watched as Malcolm unzipped his right calf side pocket to produce a tool kit so tiny it had escaped her notice when she processed the flight suit in the 'fresher. She hoped it wasn't ruined. Malcolm removed the defroster's front panel then started poking through the wiring and modular circuits.

"What are you going to do?" the woman asked.

"Nothing serious, Cindy," he replied enigmatically. "These models require nothing more than a bit of judicious electronic castration combined with well-articulated guarantees to the machine in regards to subsequent actions which may be taken should such device continue with obnoxious and cantankerous failure to comply with the manufacturer's warranty of operability."


Malcolm chuckled. "I can probably fix it, Cindy." The spacer's usual good spirits had revived with the shower, the promise of a home-cooked meal and a place to sleep. Even the bump on his head had subsided to a tolerable throb.

The Parani sighed. "I supposed you can't mess it up any worse than it already is."

"I give you my word, Cindy," Malcolm's eyes twinkled. "If I can't fix it, we'll just have to call the repairman."

Malcolm talked while he worked on the defroster. If Cindy's command of English and the auxiliary tongues of Earth was more complete, she might have blushed at some of the off-color comments muttered under Kirk's breath. The spicy monologue ceased only after the big, long-boned man sat back on the synthi-stone floor. He crossed his legs and gazed into the dark interior of the machine.

"Try it now, Cindy."

The girl looked at the small bundle of wires, a number of silicon chips and the panel mounting screws lying beside the spacer. "What about all that?" she asked.

"Not necessary," he assured her. "Just try the 'froster."

Thirty seconds later doubt turned to jubilation. "It worked! What did you do?"

"Removed the governor," Malcolm stated. He replaced the access panel and picked up the wiring. "Burned out chip most likely. If all you need is defrost and maybe up to fifteen degrees Centigrade, then you're in like Flinn. If you need more power, then no way, Jose."

"I don't understand half of what you say, Malcolm, but if you mean it'll defrost and nothing else, then thanks! I never used the other functions anyway."

Malcolm chuckled again. "De nada." When her smooth forehead puckered with a frown the Earthman added, "Spanish. Ancient Terran tongue. Means 'think nothing of it.'"

"Are you a Historian as well as Pilot and Cargo Master?" Cindy asked as she opened packages to insert inside the defroster. "What with all your odd words and names it seems..."

Malcolm cut across her comment with a laugh. "I'm just a trivia collector, dear." He got up from the floor. "Are the dishes up here?"

Malcolm set the small qeek wood table while Cindy prepared the meal. He peered over her shoulder at the unfamiliar foods she mixed in a shallow pan over the single heating element.

"Smells good," he sniffed with appreciation. "I'm ravenous."

Cindy turned off the heat then carried the pan to the table, where he joined her. He picked up the Parani 'hand spear' and gazed thoughtfully at the food. "Thank the stars that if I had to get dumped, it was at least on a Class One planet. Can you imagine how hungry I'd be on a Class Two?"

"Skin and bones," Cindy giggled. She looked at his frame which, even seated, towered over her. "A lot of skin and bones. Our food may lack some nutrients your physiology requires, but you won't feel any deprivation for months."

Malcolm's manner shifted from glib to sober. "I know. Thanks for helping me back there. I was about to go down for the count, or worse..."

"De nada," Cindy acknowledged with a shy smile. "Eat before it gets cold."

Malcolm was so hungry he didn't feel guilty for accepting seconds when offered, until Cindy got up to raid her little freezer again. By the time he realized he might be eating her out of house and home the deed had been done and there was nothing left to do but to politely consume that portion as well. He made up for his voracious appetite by helping clear the dishes. Cindy then produced a welcome surprise, a bottle of fairly respectable ose wine. They retired to the community room, sitting on the couch which, like everything else the woman owned, showed considerable wear and age, though maintained in immaculate condition.

As they sipped the wine, Malcolm learned more about Cindy's profession. After a short time, the spacer made an observation. "The ancient French language had a term for the kind of work you do. 'Troving' or, more specifically, you are a 'trover.'"

Cindy looked above the rim of her pale ose wine. "What's that?"

From the tone of voice it could be construed she was uncertain of the complimentary or abusive connotation of the word. Kirk's easy grin relaxed her pout. "Means you hunt treasure. Troving is a common law action by which one recovers goods, or the value of goods, wrongfully converted by another for their own use. I like that better than the 'collection agent' term currently in use."

Cindy smiled, gracefully sipping her wine. Her impossibly supple legs were drawn up beneath her rounded hips. The mass of hair, silken in texture and an indescribably rich ocher color, billowed gently under the forced air circulation vent overhead. "I like 'trover' better, too. No one likes a collection agent."

Malcolm found himself becoming intrigued by the Parani's delicate beauty, though he knew from practical experience that Parani were far from delicate. He mentally shook himself and concentrated on her conversation, not her delicious curves or soft brown eyes. Shape and form he could, after a fashion ignore, but his fascination with the subtle bluish tint of her complexion would never cease to hold his attention.

"What kind of credits can one make as a trover on Paran? If I'm out of line, just say so."

Cindy shrugged her shoulders, her reply candid and direct. "Depends on what we recover. I usually get ten percent of Marva's ten percent."

"Marva...your employer?"

"She's from Sirus IV. Been here fifty—sixty years; long enough to metamorphose from her neuter to female state. She gave me a job when no one else would."

Malcolm cradled his glass between two hands heavily callused from doing too much cargo work over the last few years. He'd never cared for Sirusites simply because they were generally too schizoid for his taste. Each native of Sirus evolved through three different sexes during their extensive lifetimes; neuter, female, male (not necessarily in that order). In Malcolm's opinion, the people of Sirus IV barely qualified as sentient beings. Without even meeting her, Kirk was sure Marva would be a refugee from a Terran 2-D video creature feature.

The spacer cleared his throat, and his thoughts. "What kind of stuff do you retrieve? Just scooters?"

Cindy shook her head. "Scooters, flitters, skippers, even Falconi drive ships," she paused as she said that, looking at him strangely. She continued. "We also go after portacomms, 3D units or anything that can be financed and defaulted on."

"Seems to me this line of work has a rather high personal injury factor. Don't the clients resent you taking things they consider to be theirs?" Malcolm tossed off the last of his ose and reached for the decanter on the table before the couch.

"Not if you're good at your job—and I am," t'sinji replied. "You learn to be careful and not take any chances.""

"You rate yourself pretty high in this trover game, don't you?" Malcolm settled back to enjoy more wine, his aches and pains nearly banished by the generosity of the woman beside him.

"The best," Cindy replied without boasting. She thrust her chin forward and narrowed her eyes. "When my parents died I was left holding the mortgage on this place. It was touch and go until Marva gave me a chance. Now everything you see is paid for, except the house itself."

"It's a very nice place," Malcolm complimented both Cindy's taste and her resourcefulness. "Sorry to hear about your folks."

"Don't be," t'sinji replied. "We were not a happy family. Mother hated having a brat underfoot and my father was seldom here."

A dark frown touched her exquisite countenance. Malcolm sensed an undercurrent of past rejection tempered by years of self-reliance. At that moment she looked more like a child than a young woman, making him feel guilty for his previous lecherous appreciation of her perfect form. He did not, however, feel too guilty. Parani women were universally appreciated by males, females, the double-sexed, the triple-sexed and the as yet unclassified sexed sentient beings of the known worlds. Still, it was embarrassing to witness Cindy's bitterness.

As if she were aware of both factors which disturbed the silent Earthman, Cindy stretched her shapely legs and deliberately changed subjects.

"You're Falconi licensed, correct?" She reached up and twisted the long ocher-tinted hair into a loose knot, exposing a delightful arch of throat. She was not consciously being seductive, but the end result on Malcolm's libido was the same.

Malcolm averted his eyes from the graceful motions and answered with a chuckle. "Is this a trick question? I told you I was a Pilot." He picked up the decanter. "More wine?"

"Thank you." Cindy stared at Kirk as he filled the glass. "You seem capable enough—if a little ignorant about Ferric's Bar. Why Cargo and Third? Why not Pilot Second or Reserve?"

Malcolm flushed. "I ran into a little trouble when I captained for Btea-Alaise Lines." He watched t'sinji's eyebrows arch and knew she was impressed. Kirk grinned, shifting his lanky, angular body more comfortably on the cushions. "There was a lady—she neglected to tell me she was the wife of the line's president—and we were discovered in a rather compromising situation. I lost my command of the Serendipity. Since then I've found it difficult to sign for a position higher than Second."

"So, you worked for Btea-Alaise..." The woman managed to conceal both awe and amusement with a yawn behind a long-fingered hand. "So you're still Falconi certified."

"I take my test accreditation twice a year like everyone else. Why do you ask?"

"I thought you might be interested in making some credits. Given your current financial position, could you use 500 credits?"

"Who do I have to murder?" Malcolm grinned.

"Nothing like that!" Cindy giggled. "But I will keep you in mind if you do assassinations at a reasonable rate." They smiled at each other for several moments then t'sinji said, "Seriously, there is a way to make such sums. All you'd have to do is what you already know best, pilot Falconi ships. That's where the big pay offs are. There's a certain yacht Marva has been hoping to pick up for the last few weeks, but her regular pilot isn't available. I can get you past the security and into the ship. All you need do is jump to Renova on the other side of Paran. You and I work as partners and split fifty-fifty. Interested?" Cindy leaned back to gauge the effect of her offer.

Malcolm gnawed his lower lip, concentrating on her face. "And have some bozo point a blaster at me?" He shook his head. "I'm rather partial to this old hide of mine."

"Do you think I'd ask if it was dangerous? Do you think I'd let anything happen to you? If you think that, then why did I go to all the trouble back there in Wharfside? You were lucky all you got was a lump on your thick head." When Kirk frowned the woman sensed an advantage and pressed forward.

"I'll go you even better. You can stay with me. I'll give you the second bedroom, food, whatever you require. I'll assume all the expenses and you keep everything you make. We do enough of these, providing you're half the pilot you say you are, and you'll eventually save enough to get off world. What do you have to lose by trying at least one job with me?"

"Another trick question? How about my life?"

t'sinji's shoulders drooped. She leaned back, sighing softly with defeat. "I can't force you."

"What exactly would I have to do?" Malcolm asked.

Cindy's face brightened with renewed hope. "I'll take care of everything. All you have to do is fly the ship."

"Why me?" He put the wine on the table and crossed well-muscled arms across his chest. "You don't know me from Adam—and before you ask, that's another ancient Earth cliche."

Cindy cupped her chin, leaned elbow on knee, and stared across the room. "There aren't too many Falconi pilots who aren't working. I—we—wouldn't have this chance if Marva's Falconi pilot wasn't laid up in the hospital undergoing reconstruction."

"What happened? A customer nailed him?" Malcolm was intensely interested in the woman's reply.


"The Falconi pilot!"

"Oh, that. His own fault," t'sinji answered. She sat up, back straight, hands folded in her lap, breasts straining the fabric of her coveralls. Once again she unconsciously struck a pose that deeply affected Malcolm Kirk. He looked away, and the woman thought it was a rejection of the proposition. "He came in too hot at Renova and scattered the ship and himself over a square kilometer at Karsen Shipyards. You're bound to be a better pilot than Garsk."

The pilot's name was unfamiliar, but then Kirk silently admitted he did not know all the Falconi pilots registered in the local quadrant. But he did have a comment. "I don't crack up ships."

"Then we won't have any problems. I get us in. You fly us to Karsen's. We come back to Port City with a thousand credits to split between us."

Malcolm was suspicious. "Sounds too easy. What's the catch?"

There was a pained expression on t'sinji's lovely face. "There's no catch, Malcolm Kirk! It happens just the way I said. There's a thirty tonner at a private field ninety klicks from here. Will you do it? I'm sure you can use 500 credits even if you don't take up my offer of room and board."

"Five hundred credits wouldn't even jump me to the local moon. It's a mere fraction of what I need to get to Baltion."

"But it would be a start," Cindy's voice was earnest. "It's not bad work, Malcolm Kirk. I really don't see many choices for you. It's either work for me, or wander Port City or Wharfside and slowly starve to death if you can't get a berth."

"Fifty/fifty?" Malcolm asked.

Cindy took the question as a sign of assent. "Thanks, Malcolm! You won't regret this!" The Parani jumped up from the couch and went to the communicator by the front door. "I'll call Marva and give her the good news. There's a bonus for early delivery!"

The flustered Earthman was still trying to voice "Wait a minute!" when the radiant Parani broke the connection with her employer. The girl was so buoyantly ecstatic Malcolm was unable to break her heart. He resigned himself to another glass of wine while Cindy launched into plans for her share of the fee.

Several times before he went to bed Malcolm asked himself: What have I gotten myself into this time?

Malcolm briskly rubbed his eyes and yawned in the pre-dawn darkness. "Did we have to get up so early?" He shivered against the bitter chill. For the millionth time he agree with the author of "Travelogue of the Galaxy." Paran was too cool year round for Terrestrials and other beings accustomed to average planetary temperatures of 18 degrees C. He also agreed with his Old Pap (not his bio-parent, who was unknown, but the crèche manager where Malcolm was raised) who said, "Nothing's colder than an angry woman."

"Appears to be a universal law," Malcolm muttered into his parka hood.

Cindy's voice was irritable. The damn Earthman never seemed to stop complaining. Her reply was as frosty as the weather. "We had no choice on the time, Malcolm. Marva's informant was very specific. They change the guards at Oh-Three-Thirty Standard. That's our best time to slip in for the yacht." Cindy jammed her hands into the pockets of her jacket and peered through the foliage of a thick leafed solafa bush which concealed them from the numerous guards patrolling the wire fence surrounding the field.

Malcolm pulled his borrowed parka even tighter as he tried to forget the cramps in his knees from squatting in the wilderness for two and three-quarters eternities. "Even criminals have better sense than to skulk about at this hour!"

He was grateful t'sinji didn't reply. She'd already said more than enough over the last two hours to make Malcolm regret his agreement to this insanity. There was a sharp tongue lurking behind that beautiful facade though, of course, one had been needed to get his tired bones in motion.

Kirk looked at the gleaming spire of the trim yacht rising above the vegetation in this remote area. It was a fine ship and appeared to be well-maintained. This assumption, however, was due entirely by the appearance of the field, which included security beams, armed guards, wire fence, armed guards, supply and repair hanger, armed guards...

"I don't like this cloak and dagger stuff, Cindy. Let's get back to the scooter and get warm. I'm turning almost as blue as you. Not natural for us pink-skinned types."

"Enjoy the walk, Malcolm. All thirty klicks."

"Huh?" The Earthman reached out and turned the Parani's face toward him. He could barely make out the outlines of her features and wished his eyes were as sensitive to infrared as the Parani's. But he could make out the upturn of her lips and found nothing amusing in her demeanor. "We left the scooter on the main road less than a klick from here."

"Marva's already picked it up," Cindy informed him. "We couldn't leave it there." She nodded toward the field and the fashionable residence further up the hillside. "They might have become suspicious and investigated.

"Flek!" Malcolm softly cursed. "How are we going to get back?" He regretted the question as soon as he asked it. He already knew what her answer would be.

"Isn't that obvious?" Cindy grinned. She pointed to the well-guarded yacht. "Best transportation in the galaxy. All we have to do is get in and take off. Simple. Fast."

"Simple? My grandmother's arthritis! Those guys play for keeps! Look at them! There's enough hardware out there to make a platoon of Class Five Star Troopers green with envy! Why, we don't stand a chance in. . ."

Malcolm's words were abruptly silenced by t'sinji's warning grip. Her superior night vision and acute hearing detected the approach of one of the perimeter guards. The Earthman closed his mouth, closed his fists (as if they could do anything against a Groton Blaster!) and closed his heart to the fear which threatened to turn him to jelly. Malcolm prayed to the Great Force, something he only did under times of great duress.

The guard passed within ten meters of their hiding place and moved on without raising the alarm. Malcolm slowly released the pent breath straining his lungs. His heart began beating again. "That's it, girl. We're getting out of here."

The Parani woman offered no reply. She checked her wrist chrono then silently nodded. Before Malcolm could stop her, t'sinji started toward the fence. She was halfway over the wire-mesh barrier by the time he joined her. They dropped inside and began running, Cindy leading the way.

"You lied to me, Cindy!" Malcolm hissed through clenched teeth as he slowed to match her shorter gait. "This place looks like a Star Guard HQ!"

"Just do like I tell you," t'sinji panted from the furious pace. "All you have to do is fly the ship once I get us inside."

"I'm not worried about flying!" Malcolm nearly shouted his frustration. "I have this phobia about being fried in a blaster beam!"

Cindy refrained from retort. She concentrated her every energy to using the shadows and maintaining her speed. Malcolm felt no physical strain; he ran easily in the .8g of Paran. His eyes constantly darted from fore to aft, port to starboard. The Falconi yacht, two hundred meters in front of them, was bathed in the glow of security beams. Anything entering that cone of light would set off a number of alarms. The diameter of the security projector's field was approximately fifty meters; a long time to be exposed to the view of aroused guards. Malcolm swallowed his fear and tried to detain Cindy when they reached the edge of the security field.

"I want that ship!" t'sinji cried as she twisted free and broke the plane of the security beams. A horrendous din shattered the darkness. They were fully committed now. "You promised!" Cindy shouted as she ran for the ship.

Malcolm suddenly felt naked as he sprinted toward the open airlock. Cindy stumbled. "Give me your hand!" he commanded. Her response was too slow to suit him. Malcolm scooped the Parani's diminutive form under one arm and dashed for the ship. They were just within the airlock when the first blaster beam whooshed against the ship's tough outer skin.

"Damn good thing he can't shoot straight!" Malcolm cursed at the slowly closing outer hatch. "You're going to get us both killed!"

Malcolm's harsh accusation infuriated the woman, but she was unable to respond while gasping air into starved lungs. As the hatch sealed, she managed, "Okay, I got us in..."

"You?" Malcolm was astonished. Instead of pointing out who had done what, Kirk dialed the inner hatch and came face to face with a startled Parani, who reached for the military-style blaster at his hip.

The Earthman was faster: a solidly delivered punch from Kirk's right fist stretched the guard full length on the deck. Malcolm bent low to determine if his adversary was unconscious or dead. Satisfied the slighter Parani would survive, Malcolm yanked t'sinji into the passageway the dragged the guard away from the hatch. As he waited for the inner lock to close he cursed profusely, clutching his bruised right hand.

"Flek—that hurts!"

Kirk snapped the manual lock on the hatch. "I hope the goon doesn't have any more friends on board! You stay with him. Collect any weapons you can find then stuff him in the storage locker." When he noted the confused expression, he turned Cindy by the shoulders with a two fisted grip and pointed to a door a few meters to the left of the lock.

"You have three minutes to get him in there and yourself strapped down on the crew deck. That's two decks above. Understand?" He waited until she nodded, eyes wide. "I'm going up ship and lift this bird."

Kirk gave the girl a gentle shove towards the guard then disconnected the over-ride to the lock. Even if they didn't lift on time, anyone trying to come through the personnel access would have to expend at least ten minutes to bypass the locking mechanisms.

The big spacer scrambled up the ship's ladder and raced for the bridge. Malcolm activated the pile slightly ahead of proper sequence so it would be good and hot by the time the flight console was cleared for lift off. Three minutes and three seconds later the trim craft screamed off the isolated field. Eight minutes later Kirk put the ship in a hundred mile parking orbit and shut down the drive. Utilitizing the assurance of long practice in free fall, Malcolm quickly made his way from the bridge to the crew deck.

Cindy was clutching her face, moaning, but she stopped the instant he appeared. Malcolm, in free fall, kicked off the hatch rim and expertly killed his velocity at the Parani's couch. He pulled her hand away and frowned at the hematoma already forming below her left eye.

"I told you to strap down, kid," he gently admonished. His fingers explored the tender area. "At least nothing seems broken. What did you do to yourself?"

Cindy brushed the man's hand aside and fumbled with the straps holding her to the chair. Her irritation was more self-directed than towards Malcolm, who backed slightly to give the woman room.

"I made the mistake of looking over the edge of the chair at the same time you took off," she growled.

"I see you're feeling better," Malcolm's concern became less acute. His fear and anger had already evaporated during lift off and his subsequent discovery of t'sinji's injuries. But her acidic response diluted his sympathy.

"I was just worried about the guard," Cindy stated. "I hope he came through all right. I didn't have time to tie him down."

"I could care less," Malcolm snorted. "Any bastard who points a blaster at me deserves a little pain and suffering."

"I don't, not for one minute, believe you're as cold-blooded as any Ungulani! You couldn't—" Cindy gulped, eyes large as saucers, as she drifted away from the couch. Her face grew pale, her body trembled. Malcolm's chuckle only made it worse.

Kirk took t'sinji's hand and guided it back to the chair. "Never been in free fall before, have you? You'll get used to it. Just don't make any sudden moves."

"Where are you going?" Cindy asked, a trifle high pitched.

The Earthman paused at the hatch. "Stay here. I'm going to check on the guard."

"Malcolm!" Cindy cried frantically, then lowered her eyes with embarrassment for having revealed her terror. "Take me with you, please?"

Her little girl voice softened the big spacer. "All right," he said, kicking back to her vicinity. "Grab on."

Cindy maintained a desperate grip to Kirk's belt as the man bounced and glided through the companionway. After a few distressing moments, Cindy slowly relaxed. The spacer's easy confidence—his sheer grace—reassured her. Her opinion of Malcolm Kirk's abilities escalated with each passing meter. Free of gravity, in his chosen element, the man was no longer big, hulking or clumsy.

They arrived at the storage locker and Malcolm showed Cindy the hand lines which had been unnoticed when the ship was in gravity. She reluctantly transferred her grip from his belt to cool wire hand lines.

"Give me the blaster," Malcolm ordered, floating before the locker.

Cindy looked at the blaster handle protruding from the top of her calf-high boot than back to the man with horror. "You're not going to kill him are you?"

"Hell no!" Malcolm said firmly. "It's just in case. I don't think he's in any condition to cause any trouble—not if my hand is any indication." To illustrate that assumption, Kirk showed the girl his skinned and bleeding knuckles.

Though she was still unconvinced, Cindy handed over the weapon. "Oh—" she closed her eyes "—please don't kill him."

"I've never killed a civilian, Cindy. I'm not about to start now. Unless," he quietly amended, "he's inclined not to be cooperative."

The guard was still unconscious. Malcolm made a thorough examination and nodded. "You did a good job tying him down. Better than you did for yourself. I think his jaw's broken. Is there medical help at Karsen's?"

Cindy bobbed her head affirmatively, an action which made her body oscillate in a disconcerting fashion. The Parani woman's face lost all color as she clasped a hand to her mid-section.

Malcolm reached out and steadied the girl. "Don't get sick on me!"

"I won't!" Cindy gulped her promise.

Kirk's voice softened. "How's your face? Any pain?"

"It hurts just fine," she hissed. "What do you think?"

"That I've heard this conversation as recently as last night," he chuckled. Cindy looked into the Terran's eyes and realized the question had been intended to distract her discomfort, which it had done. Her stomach was steeled and the girl offered a brave little smile.

"That's better!" Malcolm grinned. "Here, take this ugly thing." He floated the blaster in Cindy's direction then bent to release the guard. "We'll have the doc take a look at sweetness-and-light as soon as we land. I'll haul him up ship. He might as well have a smoother ride down than he had coming up. You can ride in the bridge with me as long as you keep your hands off the flight console."

"What do you think I am? Stupid?" Cindy stuffed the lethal hardware back into the top of her spacious boot.

Malcolm shouldered the guard and turned out of the storage locker. "If I were to make a thorough exploration concerning the ramifications of your last query, we'd be in orbit at least two standard years." His lopsided grin and raised eyebrow stifled her quick retort. "Grab hold, kid, or make your own way back."

Cindy held her tongue during the eerie, to her, "flight" back to the crew deck. She again marveled at the cool precision displayed by the Terran, even as he maneuvered a double burden. On Paran, Malcolm was clumsy, with a natural tendency to stumble over any object; like the edge of a carpet. Here in space, however, Malcolm Kirk was the personification of grace and control.

Malcolm secured the guard in the lounge then took Cindy to the flight deck. Kirk politely, but firmly, strapped the curious girl into the co-pilot's seat. He then settled himself behind the main controls to open a comm link with Renova's main industrial complex.

"Karsen... come in Karsen..."

Kirk received his instructions from the Port Captain at Karsen's then killed the yacht's orbit before kicking the little speedster over the eastern hemisphere of Paran. For a few moments he was too busy to have conversation and Cindy sensed this. Her pain and indignation were submerged in her elation at recovering the yacht and her amazement at discovering a different side to the big Earthman.

The Parani woman openly admired the deft skill the spacer exhibited in handling the yacht.

Kirk, however, broke the silence when the ship was in steady descent. "I'm more than ticked off at you, Cindy. You totally understated the whole mission. It was not as 'simple' as specified. We could have been killed."

Cindy was unable to object because Karsen Control initiated final landing instructions and Malcolm was suddenly busy. She squeezed her lips into a hard, thin line while rubbing the dark bruise on the side of her face. The Terran did not look at her, his eyes only for the readouts on the console. Kirk's strong hands made minute adjustments with an ease that seemed almost automatic.

"We came out all right, Malcolm Kirk," Cindy gasped as the G-forces built under the ship's tail. She talked to give herself something else to think about besides the great weight crushing her breast. "Just remember the 500 credits."

"Five hundred credits does not mean a thing to a dead man." Malcolm kept his voice cool, his eyes on the landing graphics. "Those goons were trying to kill us. Quiet!" he gruffly commanded when Cindy began a hot retort. "I have to hear what the Port Captain is saying."

Malcolm set down on Pad Sixteen, Dock Three. He waited until the automatic stabilizers properly leveled the ship before cutting the pile., The only sounds inside the ship were the multitude of tiny creaks and pings as the yacht's hull cooled. Echoing up the access shaft was the inarticulate cursing of the guard, who struggled with a painfully with inoperative mandible.

A tractor, with a doctor, two company reps and a driver arrived at the airlock. Cindy immediately asked for, and received, a receipt for the ship. Malcolm then had the medic look at Cindy. After a brief examination, the doctor announced in the injury as painful but insignificant. He then patiently stood before Malcolm with an expectant look on his face.

"What are you waiting for?" Malcolm asked the grinning Parani. "There's another one in the ship, and I assure you he's in need of your services."

Cindy reached up and dragged Malcolm's ear to her lips. "It is customary to extend a gratuity," she whispered.

"Oh! Heavens me!" The Terran cried with mock embarrassment. "How thoughtless! How inconsiderate! Here, my good man—" Malcolm jerked the blaster from Cindy's boot and expertly thumbed the power cartridge into his palm. He thrust the disabled weapon into the startled Parani's hands. "Thank you so much! I do hope it's the right color!"

Malcolm ground his teeth together and stomped out of the ship. He hurled the power cartridge across the scarred tarmac. Cindy ran after him.

"What's the matter with you? That was very rude!"

"So fleking what? Does everything have to have a price tag?" Malcolm's long legs forced t'sinji to maintain a trot to keep up with him. "Flek! Flek! Flek!" the Terran shouted.

"Will you please slow down?"

Malcolm ignored the girl, moving straight away from the rapidly cooling yacht. Cindy finally jumped on his back and yelled "Stop!" Since the Parani woman weighed next to nothing as far as Malcolm was concerned, he kept right on walking and growling under his breath.

"I nearly get my ass shot off by a bozo with a blaster. Nearly break my knuckles on a concrete jaw. Now some stupid jerk of a doctor wants another piece of me!"

"Will you calm down a minute?" t'sinji begged; her lips next to his ear, arms tight around his neck. "You just made 500 credits!" She waved the receipt in front of his face. "We make a damn good team, Malcolm. I promise the next one won't be so bad — most of the pickups are easy! Will you please stop?"

Malcolm did stop. Abruptly. He peeled Cindy from his back with the same ease as stripping off his flight suit. He set her on the tarmac before him and held the woman in place; his hard hands on her slim shoulders, face bent down and thrust forward at an acute angle.

"What makes you think I'll go out with you again? This whole thing is crazy—" Words momentarily failed. Kirk took a deep breath. "Cindy, if you think I'm going to help you with another recovery then you've got vacuum where you ought to have brains!"

"You're just a bit excited," Cindy offered placatingly. "By this time tomorrow you'll have settled down since we weren't in real danger and you'll have a new finance account and credits to spend."

Malcolm barely controlled his apostolic tendencies; biting back harsh words. He spun away from the young woman. Cindy detained him with a hasty exclamation, "Malcolm!"

"What?" he demanded irritably.

"You're going the wrong way." t'sinji contritely stated. She jerked a thumb over her left shoulder. "Marva's on this side of the field waiting to take us back to Port City."

As Cindy promised, the life of a trover wasn't always as dangerous as their first outing. Malcolm settled into the new routine over the following weeks. When he and t'sinji weren't up at or before dawn, they were hitting the sack well after midnight. Tracking down defaulted scooters, skippers and a multitude of stereo 3Ds proved to be a full twenty-six hour a day job. Malcolm gained his experience on the smaller items, eventually working up to his own assignments. When he can Cindy pulled their next Falconi, it went without a hitch.

Marva was pleased with the addition to her company. The sharp tongued, bulbous-shaped, eight breasted, feather crested (she'd lose those with her transformation to a male) native of Sirus IV began assigning more difficult Falconi drive ships — thus more profitable — to the Parani/Terran pair. Marva expressed her delight in Kirk's faultless piloting. He did a better job and her old pilot, the ships always arrived in one piece when delivered to Karsen's. Marva asked no questions of Kirk and that one fact kept Malcolm from totally disliking her.

Unfortunately, however, the Siriusite's high opinion was not shared by the other employees of Marva's Merchandiser's Protection Agency.

The most vocal of all was Refo, a Valaten. Small, hairy and obnoxious, it was not uncommon for the non-humanoid with disgusting personal habits to complain vociferously when Marva handed out assignments.

One payday he crudely complained, "It's not fair! I haven't made flek since the Earthman got here!" Refo pounded on Marva's desk before picking up his credits.

Cindy, off to one side and counting hers and Malcolm's earnings, giggled as Refo's fur-covered face scowled. Marva was not impressed by the Valaten's outburst. It had been a long night and the last thing she needed was more of Refo's whining.

"I don't care," Marva told the Valaten. "At least the Terran doesn't strain ships or land them so hot they crack!"

"That wasn't Garsk's fault." Refo's defense was half-hearted. He was glad the Terran was outside and couldn't hear Marva's thinly-veiled accusations.

"If it wasn't," Marva sneered, "then why is he still in the hospital undergoing reconstruction and I'm out 93,000 credits in ship repairs?"

"But the fleking Terran is taking credits which rightfully belong to Garsk and me!"

Marva was unmoved. "And you can't take a Falconi job while Garsk is laid up. So shut up." Then, almost as an after-thought, she added, "I still think you knocked up the best secretary I ever had. Minerva is as big as a port side cargo crane!"

"Not my fault!" The Valaten's protest was both too loud and too quick.

Marva waved a finger in Refo's hair-covered face. "There can't be more than a dozen Valatens in Port City. You are the prime suspect. If Valaten females didn't get so dizzy-brained when they're horny I'd know who was responsible and stick him with the medical bills!"

Refo quaked. He snatched his meager pay and darted out the door. Marva glanced at Cindy and shook her head with disgust. "Despicable little krisk. His sex drive is so uncontrollable that lecherous little runt would mate with the hot end of an Ormic freighter! Is he still bothering you?"

"We had a little chat. I suppose you've noticed his limp?"

"I did," Marva grinned — a rather disagreeable expression if one is has never seen a Sirusite smile before.

"I don't think Refo is really interested anymore. Especially since Malcolm moved in."

"Speaking of which. How is that working out? Any problems?"

Cindy shrugged her shoulders. "Just the opposite. When he's at the house he's in his room. The only time I see him is at dinner or if we watch the same thing on 3D. He keeps pretty much to himself."

"You sound disappointed, girl. Are you interested in that big, ugly mass of protoplasm?"

"Marva!" t'sinji's blush betrayed her. "Whatever gave you that idea?"

"I just got my bill from Comp-Central. There was a research item on Terran/Parani compatibility. What was the verdict, t'sinji?"

Trapped by the record, the woman answered, "Ninety-nine and nine nines. No chromosome match, but other wise than that. . ."

"Does he know about this?"

Cindy turned away from the operations desk. Marva followed the Parani to the door. t'sinji waited until they were well out of ear-shot of the other employees, who were loudly disagreeing how they planned to spend their pay. She faced Marva with a faint smile. "You ask a question like that about a spacer? Of course he knows there's no danger of off-spring."

"Nice try," Marva chuckled, truly amused. "The bluff, I mean. The question is, does he know you're making inquiries? Maybe you haven't bedded him yet, but it's obvious you're curious."

"Marva!" the embarrassed girl cried. Cindy stuffed the team's pay into her boot top and reached for the door latch. She paused, fixing Marva with a glare of warning. "If you say anything about this to Malcolm—"

Marva chided her. "I got where I am today by never interfering in another sentient's business. I'm not going to set precedence now. Get going, girl. Your Terran's probably wondering what's taking so long."

Malcolm was, but said nothing as he handed t'sinji into the scooter and took the controls. His few comments on the way to the house were about food, shower and a good night's sleep. Cindy remained quiet.

Slightly concerned over her unusually quiet behavior, Kirk glanced at the Parani woman. He was surprised to find her avoiding his gaze, though each time he looked over, it had been to find Cindy staring at him.

t'sinji's prestige at Marva's company rose with each successful delivery. The young woman rarely passed on any opportunity to gloat over Genji, the tentacled wonder from Crowle's World or Refo the Valaten; both of whom had teased her unmercifully when she first started working for Marva. The Parani enjoyed great satisfaction not only because of the increased credits but the glorious sense of accomplishment which had eluded her for so long. At the same time she was intensely aware the present good fortune largely depended on Malcolm; therefore, she made every effort to make the Terran comfortable on Paran.

"Are you through with your dinner?" Cindy asked with amazement. She surveyed the large portion of food left on Malcolm's plate—something he normally left as a shining example of how hypersonic dishwashers should work but seldom do. "I made this just for you, Malcolm. Tuna casserole with real imported Earth products."

"I know what it is," Malcolm replied. He reached for the half-empty bottle of local beer. He emptied it with a single, hearty swallow. "I've had enough, thank you."

"But you hardly touched it. Do you know how much this cost? What's wrong? Did I prepare it improperly?"

"You did fine," Malcolm's reply was less than enthusiastic. He left the table and stretched out on the couch. "What's on 3D tonight?"

"Look for yourself!" Cindy slammed pots and dishes on the counter. Her lips were tightly compressed. The longer she thought of the rejection, the worse it got; tears formed, her chin quivered. She finally turned towards the spacer and begged, "Will you please tell me what I did wrong?"

"Nothing. Really, nothing." Kirk did not elaborate.

His answer was insufficient for t'sinji. "I go out of my way to buy some of your native carbohydrates and proteins and what do I get? Indifference!"

"Don't start on me tonight, Cindy. I'm not in the mood for your sass." Malcolm clamped down on further comments. He silently lay on the couch.

"You poor mistreated Terran! Oh! I'm sorry to have distracted you while you were sitting on your ass!" Cindy threw the last of the dishes in the hypersonic dishwasher and stomped out of the kitchen. She paused by the couch to utter a number of derogatory observations about Earthmen in general and a few on Malcolm's personal habits in particular.

"That's enough!" Malcolm cried, exasperated. He grabbed her wrist and pulled the girl down on his hard muscled stomach and held t'sinji in place with an arm about her waist. "Sit still and listen to me." His voice softened but not the grip. "Please?" Cindy discovered the futility of struggling against his mass and high-grav trained muscles and relaxed.

"I'll let you go," he said, "if you promise to hang around long enough to hear what I have to say. Agreed?"

Cindy's expression remained fixed, though she indicated her assent with a curt nod. She rubbed her waist where his arm had been.

"Number one," he began, massaging his temple with a tired gesture, "there was nothing wrong with dinner. I never have liked tuna casserole and tuna two chrono-years in deep freeze is even less appealing. You could not know this. The noodles were fine, but a bit starchy. Your cooking is excellent and is to be commended even more for your success with an Earth dish you have never attempted. But the next time you feel the urge to provide a Terran meal, let me know. I'll help, or teach you. Hell, I'll even cook it myself. Okay?"

Malcolm put an affectionate arm about the woman's shoulders and drew her close. Cindy did not resist and when her sudden tears began to flow, he chucked her chin with a gentle smile. "Stop that, girl."

"Sorry," t'sinji sniffled, angry with herself and not knowing why she cried. "I only meant to help you stay healthy — you need native foods periodically." Cindy buried her face behind raised hands. Her long ocher hair concealed her face from Malcolm's concerned gaze.

"Thanks for trying, kid. I've been taking supplements for the last two months, guess I forgot to tell you. Thanks for caring enough to try. If you want to fix Earth foods, then try a few of my favorites like burgers and fries or Supra-New York Space Port pizza. You did something nice and I reacted rather poorly — sorry."

Cindy wiped at her runny nose and meekly raised her head. She saw Malcolm smiling down and her frown began to fade. "You're not angry with me?"

Malcolm's grin broadened as he affectionately embraced her. "Of course not, silly. You're a good little girl. Thanks for caring..."

Cindy impetuously pushed away. Her nostrils flared, her eyes narrowed. "I am not a little girl! she firmly announced. "I reached my majority four years ago!"

The Parani started to rise, but Kirk restrained her with an apologetic touch. "My mistake—again! Let me see if I can explain this without putting my foot in my mouth." Malcolm pursed his lips in thought for several instants before speaking. When he did, it was in quiet tones.

"On Earth we humans have a strange sub-culture called 'teenagers', who have the physical appearance of biologically mature adults, yet do not have the experience which maturity provides."

Malcolm's face turned crimson when he realized the direction those words were headed. "Ah. . .this is not coming out quite right. . . Anyway, dear lady, I merely wanted to say that to me you appear as one of my race's adolescents. I will have to re-think and be very careful in my modes of address when speaking to you." Malcolm Kirk paused briefly before adding, "You are a woman, Cindy. A very attractive woman at that."

The Terran's white teeth startled the Parani. She was perpetually fascinated by the contrast of his dental equipment and the deep-space bronze of his epidermis. Cindy shyly accepted the complement with pleasure. In an effort to reduce the tension, she offered Malcolm the 3D remote.

"Want to see what's on the news?" Her demure request was met with a smile and node. They turned on the stereo audio/three dimensional media center and sat back, occasionally chatting about work. Suddenly an item caused Kirk to sit up and raise the audio signal.

". . . limped into Port City this morning. Captain Hamilton of the Ormic freighter Nelson declined to elaborate beyond his earlier statement of piracy which took the entire cargo of the Earth-bound Nelson.

"Reliable sources confirm the extensive damage to the Nelson's drive and minor injuries received by three crew members. Captain Hamilton, a native of Terra with eighteen years experience, faces an inquest by the Patrol upon his release from the medical facility at Port Central. Now, for the interstellar news.

"The great liner Berinatin has been officially listed as missing with all crew and cargo. The huge Btea-Alaise ship, pride of the Arcturian Route, has been overdue for 35 galactic days. Foul play is suspected since the Berinatin is one of the most elaborately equipped fail-safe ships ever built. Investigators have expressed interest in speaking with Captain Hamilton of the Nelson due to the co-incidence of area. The Nelson was attacked and escaped, perhaps the Berinatin was not so fortunate.

"The loss of the Berinatin is greater than the ship, passengers and crew. The Arcturian vessel was carrying a shipment of desperately needed werepox serum destined for the epidemic-riddled planet of Acromni, which has been suffering tremendous fatalities from the deadly werepox virus. This sector's major pharmaceutical manufacturer, Erin Pharmaceutical, has already begun emergency production of the serum to replace that lost with the disappearance of the Berinatin. There is some doubt if Erin Pharmaceutical will produce enough serum in time to prevent the Acromni population from falling below critical level and thus ending their eons-old civilization.

"In a related story, the Acromni World Government has sent out a galaxy-wide plea for any and all werepox serum. According to sources on planet, Acromni government officials are paying up to triple the market value for the critically needed serum."

Malcolm switched from the news channel to Story Line One. He leaned back and rubbed his forehead thoughtfully as he sipped the warm beer. "Geeze," he muttered, "and I thought I had it bad. I wonder who was hurt on the Nelson?"

"Don't tell me you're concerned for those who dumped you on Paran!"

"Certainly!" Kirk replied gruffly. "Just because we had a little disagreement doesn't mean I don't like them. I'll have to get in and see old Hammi as soon as I can."

Cindy was bewildered. "I suppose I'll never understand you."

"That's good," Malcolm chuckled. "I'm afraid the day you do will be the day you cease liking me."

"What makes you think I like you in the first place?"

"Goodness," he laughed, not fooled for an instant, "there I go again—taking things for granted. Can you forgive me?"

"Why should I?" t'sinji giggled, better able to gauge the spacer's playful moods after two months under the same roof. "Besides, I do like you." She leaned against his brawny arm as she reached for the remote. "I heard there was a Terran 2D comedy on 3930 this evening. Want to watch?"

"What's on?"

"'The Maltese Falcon', I believe. I've tried watching early Terran celluloids, but never understood them. Would you explain—that is if you don't mind me asking dumb questions?"

"Bogey's on?" An eager grin split the big man's face. It would be a relief to fasten his attention on something besides the disaster which had over-taken his old shipmates. "That film's not a comedy, not really. I'll explain all the historical references for you."

"Okay," Cindy replied, "but remember, we've got a scooter to pick up at 0500. Will we have time?"

"Oodles. Plus shut-eye and breakfast. Would you like a glass of ose?"

"Very much," the woman replied, changing to the educational channel. Malcolm returned with a glass of pale ose and a fresh Parani brew for himself. Cindy waited until Kirk sat down before she got comfortable—curled up inside the warmth of his arm with her head resting on his broad chest.

Malcolm Kirk moaned as the door to the styro-dome slammed shut. His head throbbed from too much cheap ose wine the night before. He tried to ignore the angry stomping of boots on the extruded stairs — and the loud, strident voice screaming his name. At that precise instant Malcolm Kirk's only desire was to sleep off the effects of the alien alcohol in peace. It was to be denied to his desperate condition. Cindy stormed into his room and pounced on his back.

"Wake up!" she pounded his shoulder with an indelicate hand. "Wake up, you low-down rinkus! I want an explanation from you!"

"Go away," Malcolm muttered and pulled the pillow over his head. "Leave me alone."

"Not until I have some answers! Where were you last night?"

"None of your business," Malcolm replied testily. "I don't ask where you spend your time."

"I'm not off the Great Force only knows where! Turn around and look at me!" Cindy demanded.

Malcolm obliged by arching his back, an action which dumped the Parani into the center of the bed. "Go away, kid, you bother me," he growled.

"I'll bother you!" Cindy illustrated her promise by pulling at his ears. Malcolm became exasperated and captured her in his arms. Cindy struggled and managed to pull herself erect to sit straddled across the Earth's back.

Malcolm grunted unhappily as he turned over. t'sinji held her position, sitting back down while Kirk rubbed his eyes. Her breasts heaved from the exercise (goodness Earthers were strong!) as she scowled down at him.

The big man's tongue was like old, dry leather in his mouth. "What's so fleking important you've got to fleking mess with me on my fleking day off? Aren't you supposed to be at Falconi Mechanics this morning?"

"I'll get there in time. I just got a call from Genji. How could you do that to him? You Terran—barbarian!" Cindy was trembling with rage. "I don't know why I put up with you!"

"Knock off the exclamation marks, love." Malcolm's voice was harsh from lack of sleep and excessive drinking. It grated worse than usual. "I'll pack my things and get the hell out of your life."

Though she wouldn't admit it, that comment chilled t'sinji in a way she didn't like. Ignoring it, still feeding on her anger, she said, "Where would you go, you over-grown baboon?"

"Any number of places—and you better quit watching those Terran 2D 'comedies' — they are starting to affect your speech." Cindy lifted a hand to strike at Kirk, but he easily subdued her. "Quit squirming, or I'll tie you up on the bed sheets! Why don't you tell me what this is about? Genji? The bastard got what he deserved."

As if that were explanation enough, the spacer released the girl. "Now run along and let me die in peace."

Cindy maintained her perch on his hard body and looked down with a pout. The longer she sat there, the more pleasant her forty-seven kilos felt on his gut. An involuntary reaction warming his groin caused Malcolm to speedily dump the astonished woman to one side. Kirk sat on the edge of the bed and sheepishly looked back over his shoulder. The gasping girl lay in the middle of the rumpled bed clothes.

"Sorry," she said. "Maybe I've been too...will you tell me what happened yesterday?"

"Sure," Malcolm shrugged his shoulders. "See how easy that was? Just ask and I'll talk." He was embarrassed for over-reacting to her over reaction. "You know I was supposed to work with Refo and Genji yesterday afternoon in a triple pickup for Pretia Transports. Anyway, Genji brought along a green kid to take my—our—assignment.

"Ever since Marva started paying us with stock certificates and less hard credits, the cash flow has tightened for everyone. Genji saw a way to make a few extra credits and show his dislike of me at the same time. However, it failed to work out that way.

"The kid set off the alarms and from then on it was every man for himself. You can well imagine what our brave Genji did—he ran. The kid was left behind and I couldn't let him get kicked over by the irate bastards, so I pulled his bacon out of the fire. When I dropped back by the office after delivering the scooter, I had a few words with Genji. The shrimp decided he disliked the way my facial features are arranged and took his best shot. I flattened him. End of story. Now, why the hell aren't you in school? You can't expect the pass the flight examination if you miss a single day of instruction. By the Great Force, it cost us three months of commissions and all the pull old Hammi had on Paran to get you enrolled in Falconi Mechanics. If you blow this, kid, you'll have to find yourself another jerk to pilot your damn yachts when I'm gone."

Malcolm jammed his long legs into locally made trousers and stood up. He glared down at t'sinji and headed for the bath. When he came out, a very chastised young woman waited, cross-legged on his bed. She patted the sheets with a pleading look. "Sit down, please?"

Kirk sighed. He sat, head swirling abominably and decided to lean back. His legs stretched across the perma-soft carpet. Malcolm locked brown fingers behind his head and stared at the ceiling. "Speak."

"Just wanted to say I am sorry." Cindy leaned down, kissing his lips. Malcolm briefly accepted the gesture until it went longer than necessary. He pulled away, fighting a sudden flush.

"What's gotten into you, Cindy?" He stared at the Parani as if she were a stranger, not landlord and partner for the last five months. "Are you trying to start trouble again?"

Cindy looked down with a pleased smile. "There's no reason why we can't be more than friends—I know —looked it up in the reference banks not long after you moved in."

"I thought that was what you had in mind." Malcolm quickly got off the bed.

"I only wanted to tell you I was sorry!"

"Let's say you did and let it go at that. I'm not the kind of guy you want to know that well. As soon as I have the credits, I'm leaving Paran. You know that. Besides, you're a nice girl. You have a bright future. I'll just sour you and bring you nothing but pain."

"I thought you liked me!" Cindy was confused.

"I do like you, but sex has nothing to do with it. It wouldn't be fair to either one of us since I am not spending the rest of my life on Paran."

"I know what I'm doing."

"Do you?" Malcolm asked harshly. He slipped boots over his feet. "Did you ever stop to think that maybe I'm not interested? Did that ever occur to you?" Kirk donned a shirt, left it unfastened across his chest as he shrugged into a jacket. He headed for the door. Before exiting the room, he turned to the distracted woman. "You better get to class or you'll never get that damn license you want so badly."

Stunned, the speechless girl sat on the bed, mouth agape and tears forming. By the time t'sinji found the strength to follow, Malcolm had already left the house and disappeared. Fighting her confused desire and exasperation with Terran spacers, Cindy picked up her course books and ran from the house.

Cindy glared at her reflection in the mirror. Her body gleamed from the extra hot shower; her hair a 'fresher blown mass begging to be tamed. She attacked the snarls with a stiff-bristled brush and soon restored the ocher tresses to radiant glory.

Her lips dropped in a frown as she examined her nakedness with a critical eyes. What's wrong with Malcolm? Am I so different from the women of Terra? Except for a few superficial differences and the chromosome factors, I could pass for a native of Earth. Before she could stop herself another, far more disturbing thought entered her mind. Perhaps he does not find me attractive. Am I so ugly?

Cindy pouted, then decided that she definitely was not ugly. Her mammaries were the same shape and served the same function as Terran females, though her pert nipples were not surrounded by that dark coloration humans called areola. The lack of this colored ring made her breasts appear larger, more rounded — and from what she had gleaned from the data banks at Computer Central — this was not a detriment in the eyes of most Terran males. Her stomach was flat, very tight with a hint of swelling softness toward her crotch which was completely hairless like that of Terran infants and pre-adolescents.

Does he think of me as a child? I remember some cultural tabu about intercourse with infants...

t'sinji shook her head. She refused to believe Malcolm thought of her in that fashion, or he would not have acted so strangely when she woke him that very morning. The flustered young woman felt she would never understand the ways of Earthlings despite having one under her roof for one-quarter of a year.

She pulled on the Baltion wool robe Malcolm had given her following their most profitable recovery, an Imari freighter so incredibly ancient it was out-fitted with a pre-Falconi warp drive.

The Parani smiled at the memory of the gift. It celebrated their safe return to Port City—halfway through the landing approach at Renova the freighter's starboard stabilizer had frozen. Anxious minutes passed, during which it was uncertain if the spacer would be able to get them down in one piece. Afterwards Malcolm refused to accept any congratulations from t'sinji. He admitted the old Imari had very nearly been the end of them both. The Parani's admiration endured steadfastly, nonetheless, until this morning.

"Ought to let him fix his own dinner," she muttered, placing pre-packaged food in the 'froster, which still worked perfectly since Malcolm's repair. She almost put his portion back in the freezer, but when it came to seeking revenge for his heart-breaking rejection, t'sinji found herself unable to resort to so spiteful a response. What she really wanted was answers — reasons for his rejection. She would talk to him as soon as Kirk came home.

Four hours later, his dinner cold and unpalatable, she was still waiting.

Tears rolled down the woman's face when t'sinji put aside her study materials and gave up her vigil and went to bed.

He's never stayed out all night before. Cindy pulled the covers up to her chin. "You never had such a stupid fight or tried to seduce him either." Her voice echoed in the hall, a lonesome sound to her ears.

Marva's call woke Cindy in the morning. "Hi, slug-in-the-mud. Forget you're working for me this morning?"

t'sinji stared at the five centimeter image on the personal communicator by the bed. "What?" she tried to rub the sleep from her vision.

Marva waggled her crest good-naturedly. "I'll have to talk to Malcolm about keeping you up all night."

"I have to—" go to school Cindy started to say then realized there were no classes on Sixth Day "—take care of a few things and I'll be right there. Sorry."

"No problem," Marva said expansively. "Why should I worry? You and Malcolm are the only Falconi team I have." The bulbous creature ceased the light-hearted banter and bent close, transforming instantly into a venomous harpy. "Get your pretty little carcass in gear, honey, or I'll be looking for new help!" The screen went blank as Marva severed the connection.

"Damn you, Malcolm!" Cindy shouted as she scrambled into her clothes. She looked into his bedroom before going downstairs. He'd been there, his clothes were lying on the bed (he never picked them up, leaving that chore for her) but it had not been slept in. Downstairs she found evidence he'd eaten sometime earlier, the gravy was glued to his dirty plate still sitting on the table. But Malcolm was not in the house.

"Did you take the damn scooter as well?" The scooter was in the garage. A note was wedge beneath the bubble top.

Meet you at Marva's.


Cindy, in a state of nervous distraction, drove to the office purely by automatic reflex. During the drive the young Parani alternately fumed with anger or fought tears of frustration.

Refo's obscene whistle when she arrived and his question, "Where's your pet Earthman?" only fueled her anger at the Terran spacer.

Genji snickered. "I'll bet he's out enjoying the company of a real woman."

Since their "discussion" a few months back, Refo the Valaten did his jeering at a distance. "Yes, indeed, Kirk has probably discovered that children are not as knowledgeable as adults."

Cindy stopped in front of the laughing Valaten. Her voice was cool, hard. "I believe you have already learned that even us 'little kids' have been known to deal with slanderous libel by any means necessary."

Genji's amusement increased in proportion to Refo's discomfort. "This one's got a violent temper. Must have learned it from that violent Earthman."

"To be sure," Refo agreed.

All three were interrupted by the front door opening.

Cindy saw the incredibly thin figure who entered and felt shaky. Garsk was back! Garsk was Refo's Falconi pilot. Damn! Where was Malcolm? Marva would surely give the assignment to Refo and Garsk if the Terran did not show up. Garsk's presence hand an entirely different effect on Refo; shoring up his courage and ambitions now that his pilot was ready to resume work.

Refo made sure t'sinji was aware of his thoughts. "By the way, tight-pants, you and that vulgar, vicious Earthman won't get all the Falconi pickups from now on. Marva remembers who her friends are — and we don't complain like that over-sized Terran primate!"

"Don't be too sure of that, Refo," t'sinji countered. "At least Malcolm lands his ships in one piece."

Garsk nodded a quiet greeting toward the Parani woman. He was usually indifferent about her; rarely teasing or harassing t'sinji, but he had never sided with her either. The Falconi pilot perched on an empty chair and asked, "Where is this Terran pilot I've heard so much about?"

Cindy stammered uncertainly, angry with herself for revealing that much, "He'll be here, Garsk. Malcolm's running a bit late this morning."

"Late?" Refo laughed maliciously. "No doubt your Earthman heard Garsk was coming back and got cold feet." Refo turned to Garsk with a bleep of triumph. "See? I told you, Garsk, all Earthmen are lazy, shiftless, no-good bastards."

Garsk, looking over Refo's shoulder, did not answer the Valaten. His eyes focused on the front door swinging open to admit a tall, broad-shouldered humanoid silhouetted in black against the morning sun. When the door shut, he saw Malcolm Kirk for the first time. Refo turned, and nervously stepped back a pace.

Malcolm's gravel-edged basso rumbled through the office. "Lazy, shiftless no-good bastards, Refo?"

The Valaten's startled squeak amused t'sinji. Refo's fur stood on end, usually an instinctive reaction that indicated either apprehension or lust. In the case of Malcolm Kirk, it certainly was not the latter. Refo tried to change directions in a rapid tone. "We were just wondering if something had happened to you."

"Nothing did, but I'm sure you wish it had. Refo, I'm surprised you've lasted as long as you have if 'Garsk' is your pilot. Hello, Ra'Cotte. Do you remember me? I definitely remember you and the name wasn't 'Garsk' at the time."

Refo had expected harsh words from Kirk. He was confused by the apparent previous acquaintance between the pilots. "You know each other?"

Garsk did not reply. Malcolm smiled stiffly; it was not a gesture of pleasure. "Ra'Cotte is the name. It's damn hard to forget a Falconi pilot who crashed his ship on Tineus III, killing thirty-nine sentients. What was that, Garsk, nine, ten years back? I thought they took your license away. Please do me a favor, Refo. Let me know when you and Garsk are off-planet so I can find a very deep hole in the ground until your friend sets down again."

"That true, Garsk?" Refo bore down on his partner with questions the embarrassed pilot attempted to avoid. Malcolm turned away and took Cindy by the arm. He led her away from the argument between the "animated fur-ball and semi-intelligent swizzle stick."

t'sinji looked up at the towering Terran with a scowl. As soon as they were out of ear shot, the woman planted her feet and glared at the spacer. "Where have you been?" Her voice was not as civil as she intended, it came out like a Catarrhine apod's hiss. "I waited for you last night."

"Had things to do," Malcolm grinned. He seemed unruffled by the young woman's hostility.

"You could have at least called me," Cindy replied with less hiss and more sincerity.

Malcolm's smirk faded. "I should have, but well . . . I was too busy to get to a comm. But you don't have to worry about me, Cindy. I'm a big boy now."

"Malcolm, you're not on Earth," Cindy's finger shook disapprovingly. "On Paran you're just another Terran and trouble follows Terrans like stink follows Vederians! Somebody has to look out after you!"

"Oh?" Malcolm laughed then. "Is that somebody you?" He looked down at the girl, saw fists clenched and jammed above curved hips. A smile continued to play about his features, but he spoke gently, "I'll just have to take my chances, girl. So—what has Marva planned for us today?"

Cindy ground her teeth together. Malcolm usually changed the subject before she had spoken her mind, but the question was legitimate and required an answer. "I don't know. I just got here myself." Softer, "I wasn't sure you were going to show up."

Malcolm reached out and rumpled her hair with a playful hand. "I haven't let you down yet, have I?"

t'sinji was not mollified. Her face had frozen into cold aloofness which Malcolm accurately determined had nothing to do with the lateness of his arrival. His next words were delivered with pacific candor.

"About yesterday... I guess I made a fool of myself. I'm sorry if I sounded mean."

Cindy averted her gaze, chagrinned at being so obvious. "It's all my fault, Malcolm. I later realized you might have a religious tabu towards sex, or might already have a Partnered Spouse."

Malcolm stopped the apology with an explosive bark of laughter. "Tabu? I should say not!" He lowered his voice. "I have no tabus about sex, Cindy — except" he quickly added at her sudden smile "with business acquaintances." The sparkle in the Parani's eyes slowly faded. "Gee, kid, nothing personal. Okay?"

"I suppose so," t'sinji sulked. "Will you be home this evening? I need to know if I'm fixing dinner for two, or one."

"I'll probably come home to eat," Malcolm nodded, the smile vanished, replaced with impassiveness. "But I'll be going out again. I don't know when I'll be home."


Malcolm was spared an uncomfortable explanation when Marva arrived and began handing out assignments with sharp-tongued orders. Cindy was given a harsh look by the Sirusite as she handed over locations to the Parani. This only caused further frustration for Cindy as she and the Terran climbed into scooter.

Malcolm thumbed the canopy control and quietly waited while t'sinji strapped herself into the seat. A moment later, he shook his head and tapped her shoulder. "Where are we going?"

"Damn!" Cindy cursed, impatient with herself. She pulled out the assignment and read it out loud. "Iversid," she said. "Four-eighteen A North, Twenty-one J South."

"What have we got?" The spacer asked as he swung the scooter's nose into the morning traffic.

"Forty tonner. Private field. Three years delinquent in payments. Deliver to Karsen's."

Malcolm noted the curt response and chuckled. "Who rained on your parade?"

t'sinji did not understand the comment, so she made no attempt to respond. "Just get us there. The sooner we get done, the sooner I can get back to my books. By the way — where's all the help you've been promising with my Falconi Mechanics?"

"I'll help you, Cindy, just like I promised. You have to get your feet wet a bit before we'll be able to talk the same language."

"Ha!" Cindy sneered. "You don't even talk the same Basic that everyone else in the universe does! I can well imagine what will happen when we try to talk Falconi Mechanics!"

Kirk shrugged his shoulders. "If that's the way you want it — besides, I told you at the very beginning you should depend on no one except yourself. When you are a pilot, you and only you, control the destiny of your ship."

Cindy thought about his words long after Malcolm exited the city on the expressway to Iversid. There was undeniable truth in his advice. The more she thought about her classes and her dream of possessing a Falconi license, the more she began to wonder about Malcolm's apparent association with Garsk. She finally asked him. "So, how do you know Garsk as Ra'Cotte?"

Malcolm made a negligent gesture with his right hand. "I never knew Ra'Cotte personally though we were both piloting for the same tramp line out of Vegan Sector. One day my ship got a distress signal from Ra'Cotte's. The sender was on automatic. Most of the message was garbled, but indicated Ra'Cotte was making an emergency landing on Tineus III. My ship was the nearest, but it still took two days real time to arrive. When I set the old Fin down on Tineus III, we found two survivors. Ra'Cotte and his second officer.

"I had my Second shoot holo's of the wreckage for the CSAB, particularly the location of the flight deck escape module, which was totally undamaged, and the remains of the thirty-nine victims. We then took Ra'Cotte and his man to Vega Hub and the last I heard the CSAB cashiered him from Falconi service."

"Did they?"

"I don't know. Probably. Paran is lights and lights from Vega Hub and the good old CSAB is very weak out here. Do me a favor?"

Cindy noted the earnest tone. Her brows puckered as she looked at the Earthman. "If I can."

"Be a better pilot than Garsk."

"I will!" Cindy promised without reservation.

Conversation slowed and eventually ceased, except for carefully precise directions from Cindy, who acted as navigator. Malcolm pulled the scooter into a park and leave lot a half-klick from the pickup site. They walked the rest of the way to the private field. Malcolm observed the girl's listless step.

"What's the matter, kid? Where's your zip?"

"Didn't get much sleep last night," she answered curtly.

"Oh." Malcolm decided small talk was out of the question. They finally reached the field and Kirk looked the yacht over from the edge of a small ravine between their position and the ship.

"Say," Malcolm tried to be solicitous, "this one is easy. Why don't you go back to the scooter and on to the house. Get some sleep and hit the books. I can take this one by myself."

"Why?" t'sinji asked, suddenly suspicious. "So you can collect all the credits?"

"I resent that! We've split everything and that is the way it is going to stay! I just thought if you left now, you'd get back before Marva's driver picks up the scooter. But do it your way, hard head."

Malcolm sat down on the ground and moodily stared at the yacht. Cindy bit her lip; mortified by her outburst and humiliated by the man's justifiably indignant response. She found a spot next to the towering Earthman, whose massive body inadvertently shielded her from the brisk wind. She attempted to apologize, but struggled so long for the appropriate words that the moment passed. Malcolm chose to forget the incident; his face relaxed and uncommunicative. After a time he pursed his lips and began making a piercing sound with his lips that Cindy had not heard before.

"What are you doing?" her curiosity forced her to inquire.

"Whistling. Mouth Music. Acoustic Amusement." Malcolm resumed his tuneless tune, assuming his brief explanation sufficient reply.

Cindy listened with growing impatience. One thing was obvious, however, Malcolm was avoiding her. The girl trembled, on the verge of tears or anger. She believed his behavior was due to her attempted seduction. "Will you stop that infernal noise?" Cindy was appalled at the strident harshness in her voice. She tried to cover by adding, "You'll alert the guards."

"Fat chance, honey," Malcolm raised a finger and pointed. "There are only two and both are asleep in the lean-to next to the ship. You certainly are on edge this morning. Did Refo or Genji get out of line with you? I told you I'd be more than happy to slay dragons for you."

"Please don't make fun of me, Malcolm."

"I'm not," he said, letting the smile fade to a look of concern. "What's really bothering you, Cindy? Come on, tell Malcolm."

"I thought," she hesitated before plunging onward, "I thought we were getting along so well."

"We are! Is that all? Cindy, you once said we'd make a good team. You were right, but there are certain things I am not ready for. Okay?"

"Sure," she replied. "I guess I was just wondering if we were still a team. You seem to have other interests now." She looked away, unable to face him. "I know this sounds mercenary, but I need you, I need this, so I can pay for the Falconi Mechanics. I also need..." Cindy shut her mouth, continuing to stare into the ravine. "I know it's none of my business, but where do you go in the evenings?"

"Out to Wharfside. See some new faces, maybe run into old friends who've landed at Port. You know, the usual."

Cindy did not want to admit she did not know what the "usual" might be. A sudden fear constricted her breast. "Are you going to the Hiring Hall to find a berth?"

Kirk assumed a pained expression. "I promised I'd stick until you had your license. Gosh! What a worry wart!" Malcolm turned his back in disgust and refused to respond to any questions over the next hour — an hour they had to wait because one of the guards had awakened during their personal conversation and started patrolling the field.

"We could have been out of here," Malcolm grumbled, hunched inside his parka. "Sure could use a cup of coffee."

The Parani shivered as she leaned against the Terran, so he must be truly miserable. Perhaps her questions had been responsible for them having to wait, but it seemed important to explore Malcolm's mind set. She wanted to ask more questions, but he pointedly refused to do more than mutter. By the time t'sinji was desperate enough to consider hitting the Terran over the head to get his attention, Malcolm jumped to his feet.

"There they go!" He started down the ravine.

Cindy looked at the yacht and saw the guards walking across the field to a block house. Probably for lunch, if the hollow pit of her stomach was an indication. Malcolm was halfway up the ravine's opposite side before he noticed t'sinji was not with him. "Are you coming?"

"Yes," Cindy stepped off and started to slide down the bank. Malcolm leaped across and caught the woman before she hit bottom.

He straightened her up with a hand to the nape of her jacket, dusting off her backside with strokes that verged on spanking. "Watch your step. Need a hand?"

The Parani woman jerked free of his grasp. "I don't need your help," she hissed.

Malcolm frowned, but stepped aside and kept an eye on t'sinji as she climbed the far slope. She did, however, let him help her over the fence.

The rest was simple. They had no trouble gaining access to the yacht, taking off or landing at Renova. Marva was impatiently waiting in the Port Captain's office. "About time! I've got an appointment and I'm running late, thanks to you two!"

The Sirusite pushed her skipper to the max for the bounce back to Port City. They caught local transport to Marva's place, where t'sinji's battered scooter was parked around back. As usual, Malcolm and t'sinji followed their boss inside and waited for Marva to pay their share of the recovery.

"I told you I have an appointment," the Sirusite exclaimed.

Malcolm crossed his arms, feet planted solidly. "Then the sooner you pay up, the sooner you can leave."

"Oh, all right!" Marva snarled. "Come into my office."

Even t'sinji seemed disappointed with the pile of credits and the stack of Stock Certificates Marva placed on the desk. "What is this?" t'sinji asked.

Marva held out a stylus for t'sinji's signature. "You were given a copy of company policy five months ago. You know what it is. Take it or leave it."

Cindy frowned unhappily, but she signed for the pay and scooped it up from the desk. Malcolm was surly, but silent, and said nothing at all as the two left the building. As soon as they were outside, however, he snarled.

"At this rate I'll be in worse financial shape than when I landed on Paran!" He stuffed the Stock Certificates, each proclaiming the bearer was entitled to one hundred shares of Marva's Merchandiser's Protection Agency, into his left calf pocket before shoving 150 hard credits into his belt pouch.

He turned, hailing a taxi that whined to a halt. Climbing in, he said, "I'll see you at dinner." Then he was gone.

Malcolm was uncomfortable in the cold scooter. To make it even more unbearable, Cindy's sharp, acid tongue did little to ease the chill. The Earthman had not spent a full night at the Parani's styro-dome in three weeks. He refused to say where he went or what he did, but something had changed since he always seemed to have enough credits to meet their budget, keep a rented scooter, and plenty jingling in his pouch.

"Serves you right for being out all night — again!"

He smiled slightly as he considered stuffing the discarded wrappers from the midnight supper into her mouth for some peace and quiet.

"What's so funny?" Cindy asked. "Malcolm Kirk, you're involved with trouble. I just know it. How do you explain your endless supply of credits?"

"You wouldn't understand," Malcolm sighed. "If I wanted you to know, don't you think I'd tell you?"

"I don't know what to think anymore. You're going to get your throat cut hanging around Wharfside. It's not a safe place for Terrans."

"Thanks for your concern, kid, but I assure you, I'll come to no harm in Wharfside. The guys all like me now."

"I'll bet! Well?"

"Well what?" Malcolm snapped, beginning to lose patience.

"How do you explain the credits?"

"I'm part of the pirate gang that high-jacked the Berinatin. The rest of the mob brings in small batches of werepox serum and I sell it to the Acromni ships picking up supplies in Port City. Making oodles of bucks. Want to join up and be my gangster moll?"

"I don't believe a word you say and I'm getting awfully tired of your perverted Terran tongue. Speak Basic!"

"Aw, go soak your head."

Cindy stopped, puzzled. "Why would I want to do that?"

Malcolm looked at her with astonishment before bursting out with laughter. "Forget it, Cindy. Sorry. You're right. My gems of wisdom and wit are lost on those who do not understand the language. My apologies, dear lady."

"There you go again. I resent your implications that I'm nothing but a dumb broad."

"Oho! Now who's talking perverted Terran? You've been watching way too many Earth 2Ds."

"What else is there to do since you aren't home?"

"Are we back to that again? Give me a break!" Malcolm jammed his hands into the pockets of his parka and glared at the yacht on the edge of a private field leased to a dozen ship owners. He growled in the darkness. "Come on, you bastard. Get out of the ship so we can get our butts home!"

"Are you in a hurry to be rid of me?"

Kirk's breath condensed in a thin mist as he turned to face the pouting woman. "If you don't like things the way they are, why don't you do something about it?"

"I am trying to, damn it! You're the one who's changed, not me!"

Malcolm refrained from correcting Cindy's statement. He almost regretted his decision against giving the attractive girl a tumble in the sheets when she asked for it a few months back. Since then life had been a living hell. However, he also realized that giving in now, to ease the sexual tension, would not improve the situation — even if he had changed his mind, which he had not.

"There's no talking to you," Malcolm sighed. "Why don't we call it a truce for a while?"

"If that's the way you want it, Malcolm, fine by me."

The tone of t'sinji's voice indicated great displeasure. She crossed arms beneath her breasts and hunched down into the seat. For a time there was silence in the scooter, which Cindy abruptly broke with a startling question.

"It's another woman, isn't it?"

Malcolm did not bother to take his eyes off the yacht. "Your statement implies that you are a woman in my life and my seeing another woman would constitute a break of Partnered Contract."

"I don't really care if you are," t'sinji shrieked, deceiving no one, not even herself.

Malcolm attempted to lighten the mood. "Why would I want to do something so foolish as that when I am sitting beside the prettiest girl on Paran?"

"Don't dodge the question by handing out compliments. Are you seeing someone else, Malcolm? And stop treating me like a child!"

"I would, if you'd act like an adult! Back off, peanut. I could ask you the same questions. What do you do with your time when I'm not around? Been seeing some of the local yokels?"

Malcolm picked up the everhot container and sipped the thick, black Terran coffee Cindy had ordered especially for him. Tasting the beverage, he thought of all the pleasant things she had done for him and regretted his brusque responses.

Malcolm avoided her eyes as he said, "You know what's wrong with you, honey? You spend too much time working. You need to have a little fun. A pretty thing like you should get out and meet boys your own age. You've been hanging around an old grouch like me for so long you're beginning to lose your zip."

"I am not! Whatever that is. For your information, I have lots of men, not boys, as pleasure companions."

"Really?" Malcolm was both amused and dubious. "Why haven't I met any of them?"

"Do you actually think I'd chance you running them off by exposing them to your boorish Earth manners and your collection of outrageous trivia phrases?" Cindy was cold an snippy. "I meet my friends in places you aren't likely to show up."

"Then you've been quite successful, dear." His bantering repartee concealed a sudden uneasiness there might be some truth to her declarations. Why that knowledge bothered him Malcolm did not wish to explore. Oh yeah? Then why does she drive me nuts?

"Not gonna get tied down," Malcolm mumbled into his coffee.

Cindy perked up, twisting in the seat to gaze curiously at Kirk. "Did you say something?:

"Just wondering how long we'll have to wait for the owner to leave the fleking ship so we can get back to civilization."

"Apparently not all that long." t'sinji dejectedly nodded towards the ship. "There he goes."

"Finally!" Malcolm cracked the top of the scooter and jumped out to stamp warmth into numbed feet. "Another day, another dollar. Come on, imp, let's get to it."

They watched as the owner drove away in a very expensive late model scooter. "Should be a piece of cake," Malcolm predicted.

"You be careful just the same," Cindy warned in a small voice. "I've gotten used to your ugly mug."

"You're going to have to lay off those corny old Earth movies, Cindy. You're beginning to sound like me. Ugh!" Malcolm laughed and boosted the slight woman over the fence. He followed, dropping to the tarmac beside the Parani. Hand in hand they raced for the ship.

Unlike most of the fields where they picked up space craft, this one was curiously lax in security. Each ship owner was expected to supply their own measures, but this one apparently thought classy ground cars were more important than a general security beam. Kirk commented on how easy this was going to be as he used a highly illegal master entry key.

"Malcolm, look out!"

Cindy screamed her warning, which gave the spacer just enough time to raise his arm to protect his face and throat from 38 kilos of snarling, screeching, hard-muscled ferox! Malcolm was knocked to the pavement by the force of the beast's leap.

"Get the hell out of here!" Kirk shouted. "I'll hold him as long as I can!"

Malcolm did not try to add anything further; he was too busy keeping the ferox's jaws from closing about his throat. The agile ball of fury twisted, turned, and pressed closer to the desperate Earthman. Malcolm's arms ached with the effort of holding the beast not only at bay, but preventing it from attacking his companion. Seconds became eternities as Kirk pitted his strength against the ferocity of the ferox. The powerful creature's breath was nearly overpowering and the distance between savage jaws and human flesh slowly closed as the animal forced its advantage. The pair of struggling combatants rolled about on the tarmac. Kirk faintly heard Cindy's wails of terror as he concentrated on the glistening fangs so close to his face.

Just as the ferox was about to rend his flesh, the beast went limp. So did Malcolm's right hand. Cindy was crying his name as she futilely tugged at the ferox's mass. Malcolm assisted her by shrugging the unconscious animal to one side. Staggering to his feet, Malcolm marveled at the tattered ribbons of his parka. For just a moment he was grateful that Paran winters were so cold that he had to wear such garments—his flight suit alone could not have resisted the onslaught of the ferox.

Cindy cradled his head between her hands; frantic with worry. "Are you all right, Malcolm? Talk to me!" She inspected his torso and thighs to determine if the Earthman was mauled by the ferox's talons. "By the Great Force, I thought you were a dead man!" Cindy sighed with relief when she found him whole and unharmed.

"Okay! Okay! That's enough, Cindy! I'm fine..." Malcolm's breath whistled between his teeth, brought on by exertion and panic. He quit leaning on the girl's shoulder. "When did you start carrying a stunner?"

"Always. Years anyway," Cindy replied. Now that the immediate danger was past, she calmed down. Malcolm learned where the stunner had been concealed when she tucked it beneath her tunic and inserted it between her ample breasts. The petite pencil-sized weapon — now useless until recharged — was completely hidden from view.

"Clever," Malcolm observed. "Got to hand it to you, you girls do present some definite advantages over male physiology. Thanks. I owe you. What do you say we get the hell out of here?" The Earthman cradled his numb right hand in the crook of his left elbow.

"Fine with me." Cindy started toward the yacht.

"Where do you think you're going? I can't fly that thing one handed."

"Could you manage with three? Your one and two of mine?" Cindy raised her hands, wiggling extended fingers to illustrate.

Malcolm barked a short laugh. "I suppose so. Give me a hand, will you?" Kirk bent down and grabbed the ferox by the collar and started to drag the inert animal away from the yacht. "Come on, Cindy! I'm not going to flame some dumb animal if I don't have to!"

"I'll never figure you out, Malcolm," Cindy grunted as she added her strength to the Earthman's. They moved the ferox twenty meters beyond the ship's blast area then hurriedly entered the ship. In the control room, Malcolm wasted no time preparing to lift off.

Cindy reached back and tied her long hair in a loose knot; a habit born as a result of their experience repossessing Falconi ships. She quietly followed Kirk's commands during lift off and establishing orbit. Once Malcolm was satisfied with the ship's attitude, he shut down the flight console to standby mode and kicked free of his seat.

Cindy followed Malcolm down the companionway to the lounge. "Aren't you going to set us down at Karsen's? I thought you were in a hurry to get back."

"I am," Malcolm admitted. "But I'm not going to try landing this bird one handed. We'll wait until I can use this piece of dead meat." Malcolm slapped at his right hand. He grimaced at the pain sensation he received in response similar to the prickling of returning circulation. The effect of the stunner was beginning to wear off.

"How long will we have to wait?" Cindy expertly kicked herself over to Malcolm, stopping her momentum with an ease and grace which rivaled Kirk's freefall abilities. She hooked a toe under a bulkhead lamp to keep from drifting.

"Five, maybe six orbits. Okay with you?"

"Do I have a choice?"

Malcolm grinned and shook his head. "Hey, you did all right in the control room. You've picked up a lot of info from your classes. Won't be long before you'll be able to skipper a hunk of junk around the galaxy."

"Yea-ep," she drawled in reply, an excellent Ma Kettle imitation which won instant approval from Malcolm. Cindy pouted as she continued in a derisive tone. "No thanks to you, Malcolm." When the big Earthman frowned, Cindy rolled her eyes apologetically. "I didn't mean that. Can't we be friends like we used to?"

"I have no objections," Malcolm stiffly replied. "As far as I know, my feelings for you haven't changed a bit."

"Not even the slightest?" Cindy arched her perfect eyebrows. She wrapped a slim ankle around Malcolm's thigh and pulled herself toward him.

Malcolm had no difficulty in interpreting the Parani's wanton overtures. He put up a hand to stop her at arm's length. "Not in the slightest."

"I've been told that a pair of interested adults can find the advantages of freefall not only a thrilling experience, but quite extraordinary. Shall we find out if that's true, Malcolm?" Cindy's eyes glowed with shy anticipation. "Perhaps you have already experienced this phenomenon at some time in your long career?"

Malcolm silently wrestled with temptation until t'sinji's last statement. "Bad choice of words, love. As for the other, no comment. Excuse me. Got to see if this barge has anything to eat. I'm starved." Malcolm pushed off toward the galley with a nagging thought: You know you're getting long in the tooth and ever so old when a willing, and pretty, young girl scares you to death!

Cindy angrily stamped her foot and immediately found herself flying toward the opposite bulkhead. By a fancy bit of maneuvering she avoided dashing her brains out on the unyielding steel. With her lips compressed with frustration, Cindy hurtled down the corridor, pushing past Malcolm. She headed directly to the galley.

"Out of my way, Thumbs," she scowled, "I'll see what's in the 'froster."

"We get less all the time!" Malcolm complained as he and Cindy walked out of Marva's. "Look at this crap!" Malcolm waved a thin sheaf of paper bearing the proclamation "Two Thousand Shares - Marva's Interstellar Merchandiser's Protection Agency." "First we get 100 credit shares, now she's voided all those and re-issued as an interstellar corporation. What am I going to do with 30,000 shares of toilet paper?"

"You just can't see a good thing, can you? When Marva finally goes interplanetary there will be executive positions open to the stock holders —- that means you, me, Refo and the rest — at each of the new offices. We'll be rich!"

Malcolm snorted disparagingly. "Thanks the Force I broke my rose-colored glasses!"

"Aha! I'll bet you're just waiting for me to say 'Why would anyone wish to visualize the world in shades of pink?' but I know what you really mean. You're a fool, Malcolm Kirk. We've got a chance to make it big and all you are concerned with is the immediate present. You have no concept of the future!"

"Like hell," Malcolm replied. "I'll believe it when I see it. Marva is rolling in the credits while we are the proud owners of stock certificates that aren't worth the paper they are written on. You believe what you will, I know the clink of hard credits talks louder than promises. Don't take anything for granted. If Marva keeps up," Malcolm got into his rented scooter and looked up at the thin-lipped Parani woman, "even you will have to admit you can't subsist on Marva's so-called generosity."

"I don't see why you're so worried. You always seem to have enough credits—you even pay your share of the bills. By the way, where do you get your credits? And don't give me that line about working with pirates."

"Cindy," Malcolm sighed, "you wouldn't understand. Let's just say I'm accumulating my proceeds form a variety of sporting events. Most of the time I'm lucky if I break even, though I sometimes make a killing."

Cindy covered her mouth with a trembling hand, a startled look on her pretty face. "I can't believe that! Tell me you do not kill for money!"

Malcolm chuckled and spread his hands in a gesture of helpless surrender. "See? I knew you wouldn't understand. Look, I've got to go. I have an appointment and I can't be late. Might drop by the house for dinner, but don't count on it. Bye."

Cindy was left staring at the swirl of dust rising in the wake of Malcolm's speeding scooter. As she turned toward her own vehicle, she ran through the list of Earthman invectives she had gleaned from hours of movies while waiting for Kirk to come home. "Prick," she finally announced with satisfaction. "You are a prick, Malcolm Kirk, and I will tell you so the next time I see you!"

"Cindy! t'sinji!"

The irritated woman turned. Marva came toward her, waddling so rapidly that two of her eight breasts popped out of her tight fitting suit. Marva was in a state of excitement; her crest of crimson feathers fully erect and her elastic facial features in constant motion. The Parani leaned against the side of her scooter and waited for the Sirusite.

"Did I forget to sign something?" Cindy's tone was petty. Some of Malcolm's distrust had infected her.

"Nothing like that," Marva wheezed. "Got something terribly urgent for you and Malcolm. You have to make a pickup tonight—in just a few hours in fact. I'll make it well worth your while."

"How worth my while?" Cindy asked. She was tired. She was angry with Malcolm. And it seemed that Marva was more insistent than usual.

Marva smoothed her crest as she composed herself. "I'll pay 20,000 credits each when the ship and cargo are delivered to the alternate field at Iversid."

t'sinji popped the bubble on the scooter and prepared to enter. "I suppose the majority of the 40,000 credits will be certificates..."

"No!" Marva shook her head so violently another breast was exposed. Peevishly the creature stuffed her mammaries inside the suit. "Hard credits, t'sinji. I'll even pay you 10,000 up front. Only if you go now!"

"Malcolm's already left. Why don't you give this to Garsk and Refo? I'm sure Malcolm wouldn't mind."

Marva tried pleading. "Think about it, honey. This is Kirk's ticket off world. He can buy passage all the way to Anarek and still have 9,000 credits left over. Could be good for you, too. Get that man out of your life. I know you two haven't been getting along lately. Besides, it'll pay the rest of your Falconi Mechanics! To be honest with you, I can't trust Garsk and Refo. They'd... Well, I trust you!"

"Sorry, Marva. What can I do? Malcolm's gone and I don't know where he goes. Have to do it tomorrow."

"Can't!" Marva grabbed the Parani's arm. "The ship is going to jump sometime this evening. You got to help me out, t'sinji. Remember, I gave you a job when no one else would."

"Okay!" Cindy scowled, jerking her arm free. "I'd be happy to do it for you, but I need Malcolm and I already told you..."

"He's at 231 Upis, Wharfside North, Kutachez Inn."

"How do you know that?" Cindy was amazed.

"In my business you know a lot of things, dear. The ship you have to pull is the Praetues. Will you do it?"

Cindy thought about 20,000 credits. It would pay off nearly all her obligations and the remainder of her Falconi Mechanics. That tempted her. Then she thought of Malcolm booking passage on the first available transport and that depressed her. If she didn't say anything to Malcolm, and he was forced to stay until he'd made enough...but what if he found out? He'd never forgive her. She made up her mind.

"I'll talk to Malcolm," Cindy said. "But if he says no, it's out of my hands. Okay?"

"Can't see the Earthman saying no to getting off Paran! Here's the dock location." Marva pressed a piece of paper into Cindy's hand. She tucked it into her boot top before entering the scooter.

Holding out her hand, Cindy said, "Forget something?"

Marva placed a second item in t'sinji's palm. It was much heavier and infinitely more astonishing. It was a 10,000 credit piece. "Like I promised," the Sirusite leaned close. "That should convince the Earthman. Now don't get yourself killed, honey. This is a really hot pickup."

Cindy narrowed her eyes as she gripped the coin for a moment. "How dangerous?"

Marva's eyes shifted slightly before she answered, "You don't want to go in there stupid, but that's no different than any other pick up." She patted Cindy's arm. "You're like a daughter to me, t'sinji. I wouldn't want anything to happen to you. Good luck!"

The Parani chewed her lip, contemplating Marva's past assignments, Malcolm Kirk's strange behavior, and the unbelievable 10,000 credit piece. "Okay," she said, tucking the coin next to the concealed stunner.

Before she changed her mind, Cindy activated the scooter's gyros, took a deep breath, and went to find Malcolm. Fifteen minutes later she pulled in beside Malcolm's vehicle and entered the shabby hotel. The clerk at the desk did not seem to remember anyone by the name of Kirk until a ten credit disc sparked his memory.

Cindy took the stairs two at a time; turned left at the landing, and looked for room 106. In her eagerness to see the Earthman, Cindy laid a hand on the knob of the qeek wood panel, which caused the unlocked door to swing open on screeching hinges. The anticipation on her face instantly changed to stony outrage when she saw her Earthman in the arms of an older Parani woman. The lady was taller and more amply endowed than herself, smooth-skinned and much prettier.

Malcolm, who was facing the door at the time, was flabbergasted to find Cindy glaring at him. He thrust the clinging woman aside, an embarrassed flush coloring his dark face. "It's not what you think," he began, then switched tracks. "What the hell are you doing here?"

"I could ask you the same thing, but it seems quite obvious!" Cindy turned on heel to leave. Malcolm stopped her with a tight grip on her arm. The young woman twisted, trying to get away. "Let-me-go!" Cindy cried. "I have nothing to say to you, you prick!"

"Maybe you don't, but I do! Be still and listen..." Kirk tried to get his other hand on t'sinji, but failed as she continued to struggle.

t'sinji was angry. She slapped at his hand. "Let me go, you shit!"

"What movies have you been watching?" Which was all Malcolm could find to say under the distressing circumstances. He was attempting to explain when the other woman interrupted with a sneer.

"Who is this little krisk? I know she can't be your daughter."

"You keep out of this," Malcolm warned the lady with unmistakable heat. "She's my partner and you don't... Cindy! Heaven's sakes, girl, be still!"

"Bullshit. I have a date with 40,000 credits. I don't need you. You're just like Refo, all gonads and no honesty!"

Malcolm had to pay attention, t'sinji was kicking his shins. "What are you talking about? What 40,000? If you don't quit that I'll paddle you!"

"You and who else? Let go! I've got to get out to Port before the ship takes off. Like you said, I'm pretty good with a Falconi—" Cindy's face was streaked with tears, though whether they were from anger, disappointment, or the painful grip would have been difficult to say. She delivered an exceptionally nasty kick which caused Malcolm to jump in pain. The young woman tore free and ran for the door. "Stay with your woman!" she cried, dashing down the hall. "I don't need you!"

Malcolm swore in several Earth languages as he struggled to get his boots on while the lady was laughingly trying to pull his tunic off. "Stop that," he yelled in exasperation. "Keep it up and I'll knock you clear across the room!" Kirk finally shoved the woman onto the bed, who then shouted curses as he ran out of the room.

By the time the Earthman reached the street, Cindy's scooter was screaming around the corner, headed south to the main port facility. Kirk climbed into his vehicle and sped after her. Several times during the ten minute drive he thought he'd catch up with her, but invariably his driving skill was not equal to t'sinji's and she would escape in traffic. Malcolm gave up trying to stop her, only hoping to arrive at the same destination as soon as possible.

It took twenty minutes to locate her parked scooter. Another five elapsed while he asked dock workers if they had seen t'sinji. He turned up negatives and muttered, "Where the flek is she? Which ship? There's eight goddamn Falconi ships here!" Malcolm suddenly slapped his forehead. "Idiot! Call Marva!"

Genji answered the comm unit at the office. Malcolm burst out, "Which ship is Cindy after?"

"How should I know, Earthman? Even if I did know, why should I tell you?"

"Because," Malcolm lowered his voice in dark promise, "if you don't, I'll take great delight in seeing how many little pieces I can make out of you before I turn you into a greasy smear."

Genji's image on the ten centimeter screen visibly paled. "Hang on, I'll ask Marva. I really don't know."

Malcolm continued to drop centi-credit pieces into the hungry comm unit's maw as he impatiently waited. More than once he angrily slammed his fist against the wall of the public booth. He was about to release a frustrated scream when Marva, with Genji in the background, filled the screen.

"What ship is Cindy after? Come on, don't waste time!"

"I thought she was coming to get you," Marva replied. "I told her where to find you."

"Then you're the one I have to thank for that! Which fleking ship?"

"Praetues, Dock Seven," Marva's crest expanded with the insult, but she answered just the same. "Stay out of the cargo hold. 40,000 credits for you and t'sinji. And watch yourself. They have plenty of firepower."

"You sent her after... If anything happens to that girl I'll come looking for you, Marva!" Malcolm ran out of the booth leaving the astonished images agape at the empty screen.

Dock Seven was a kilometer from the comm booth. Part of the distance Kirk traveled on foot, the rest was covered via the fortunate coincidence of a cargo carrier headed in the same general direction. Even better, the long train passed within ten meters of the Praetues' landing cradle. Malcolm darted across the open area shrouded in darkness. His ship suit blended into the shadows. It was then he remembered he'd left his parka in the hotel. The Earthman rubbed his hands together, trying to keep them limber.

"Damn it," he muttered, "should have asked Marva how many bozos on this tub. The way she's talking..." Malcolm disliked the way Marva was talking. This pickup smelled — like unrefrigerated ten-day old tuna casserole.

Despite his apprehensions, the Earthman admired the curving sweep of ancient hull towering over his head. The Praetues was one of the last 5,000 tonners fabricated on Ormic before the Confederation war reduced the planet to a ball of dust 200 years ago. She, like the 3,500 ton Nelson, had been lovingly crafted by master shipbuilders to have a minimum life expectancy of 500 years. The slight micro-scaring on the Praetues' hull was monumental tribute to the designer's success. Ships by other manufacturers — some faster, nearly all with greater cargo capacity — rarely achieved a 150th birthday before going to the scrap heap.

Malcolm Kirk had a fondness for the old Ormics. His training years had been on the only 10,000 ton Ormic warship ever built, the Vindicator, which reminded him of years of conflict he would rather forget. Ten years later he resigned from the military and accepted a position and First and Captain of the 2,000 ton Remiss. He served there for five years before shipping out on the 4,100 ton Ormic Sqze. After that his berths had been on the sedate, yet respectable Calhari-built liners of the Btea-Aliase Line until the fiasco with the president of the line's wife. Malcolm had taken any berth possible after that and when he had signed on the Nelson, it was like coming home to be on an Ormic at last. His spacer's heart always yearned for the old, reliable and damn near indestructible Ormics. The Earthman patted the gleaming landing strut with appreciation.

"There's only three ways to get under your sweet, tough skin, darling. Personnel hatch, Cargo Bay and Jump Boat Bay. My, my, but someone has loved you truly."

Malcolm wrapped his arms and legs about the gear to being hauling himself hand over hand up the strut's 30 meter span to the hull. To keep his mind from contemplating the hard pavement below, Malcolm catalogued the old ship from his memory of her class.

"You can work with a crew of one, but like three minimum. Twenty passengers in nine doubles and two singles. Your gut holds 3.2 kilo tons of cargo and you've got enough boost in one fueling for three hundred 100 light jumps, if we don't count worm holes to cut down distance. Damn!"

Malcolm's cold hands, numbed by the metal and the chill, missed the next hold. Thighs winced with pain as he slid down the gear three meters before grabbing on to stop himself at the expense of several square centimeters of skin on both hands. Malcolm took a few deep breaths then opened his eyes and looked up. Eleven meters remained between him and the gear housing.

"You're a bit on the slow side compared to new ships, old girl," Malcolm pulled himself upwards with quiet determination. The wind cut through his thin flight suit — his body ached with the effort and the cold. He managed another meter. "But not too slow, darling. When you consider," another meter, "that you've got pretty legs at 80% C and the best those," he groaned with the effort, "other bitches can do is," his hand gripped the lower edge of the gear housing. Malcolm heaved himself over and straddled the streamlined bulge in the hull. He gasped for breath, wiping sweat from his eyes with a shaky hand. "The best those other bitches can do is 83% of C." Kirk smiled wryly. He'd made the climb and finished complimenting the old girl.

"Be good to me, baby," Malcolm very carefully balanced on top of the gear blister and reached above his head. "Don't be built any different than all your sisters. The exterior Jump Boat Bay switch has got to be... Right here! I love you!"

The Earthman fumbled for a moment before thumbing the access cover to one side to reveal the hatch switch. Malcolm held the power for on as the pair of 10 meter doors began to open a mere 45 centimeters above his outstretched hand. He released the power switch when the opening was wide enough to admit his body. Malcolm's ears popped as his blood pressure rose — not only from his exertions, but the precarious position he maintained on the gear housing blister.

He stared at the edge of the hatch so close, yet so far away. "How the hell and I going to grow another half-an-arms length? Sweetheart, you let me down."

Kirk attempted to flex his knees for a standing jump. His effort nearly pitched him from the blister to the scarred tarmac beneath the ship. Malcolm's heart pounded in his chest as he clutched at the few and nearly non-existent foot and toe holds on the gear housing.

"Looks like I'm going to have to try the personnel hatch." Malcolm talk to himself to relive the tension. "Probably going to get my tush burnt to a crisp."

Before Malcolm could begin his descent, the wind picked up to the point he had to cling tightly to avoid being blown off. An arc of lightning crossed the sky, which starkly illuminated the field and a rumbling cargo tractor headed toward the Praetues. Rain began to fall. Malcolm rolled his eyes back into his skull and nearly shouted, "Why me?"

Something hit him in the back of the head. The hair on the nape of Kirk's neck rose as his hyper-imagination visualized the mouth of a Groton blaster. He felt an object, long, thin and supple, snaking down his back. Holding his fear in check, the Earthman turned his head to find several coils of rope hanging over the hatch's edge.

Malcolm could not believe his eyes, but the rope was firm in his hand. He pulled on one and a dozen loops spilled on top of him. He pulled again, hoping at least one of the strands was secured in the bay. He finally found one which seemed to resist his best efforts.

Kirk was reluctant to trust the ropes — they could slip, perhaps only loosely caught by whatever they were caught by — and he'd still make that quick trip with the sudden stop. His mind was made up for him, voices from the tractor were thanking the Port official and "Yes, we are lifting in twenty minutes."

Malcolm chuckled bitterly. "I'm dead if I stay here. I might die if I go. But Cindy could already be or will be soon dead and I'd never know. Knock it off, you bum. She's in there. She's too damn good." And she'll need help.

Two quick over hands and Malcolm had hold of the lower edge of the hatch. "There," he sighed with his butt resting firmly on the steel decking. He hauled in the dangling rope, "That wasn't so hard."

Malcolm tossed the wet rope to his left and felt for the interior switch for the bay doors. He stopped suddenly and chastised himself. "You don not leave exterior switch covers open. Not on sweet things like this." Malcolm knelt to the deck and reached out and down to shut the access cover. He then closed the bay doors. Rising, he turned with hands outstretched in the darkness and moved forward, expecting to bump into the jump boat's hull. Instead, he tripped and fell on his face.

Malcolm found himself lying on a pile of crates and shipping containers where the jump boat should have been. He was so astonished that anyone would remove an Ormic jump boat from an impeccable Ormic freighter that he pulled out his flash to confirm it. He thumbed the beam to broad and dim.

The bay was filled with boxes and containers. The nearest one had "Medical Supplies. Non-Perishable. Use reasonable handling." stenciled on the top. Beneath the description was the manufacturer's label: "Werepox Serum. Erin Pharm." The freight tag of the last carrier ran diagonally around the box. Malcolm read the label and hoped his eyes did not bug out too far.

"Berinatin!" Malcolm shook his head. "Holy Hoppy Toads! What have you gotten us into, Marva?"

Malcolm examined some of the other shipping labels. All were part of cargoes stolen from ships within the last six months. Kirk had no difficulty in understanding Marva's apparent generosity, or her request that he stay out of the cargo hold. With a wry, unamused smile, Malcolm growled, "I didn't look in the cargo hold, Marva. Thought you were gonna get rich quick, dearie?"

Kirk made his way through the secured cargo and paused beside the interior access hatch. He doused his light and pressed his ear against the warm metal. "Warm? Must be Sol Types on board, or the equivalent."

He cracked the hatch seal. The corridor was clear as Malcolm stepped out. He closed the hatch then headed for his pre-planned destination, the 'tween decks electrical tunnel. It was to be his route through the entire ship all the way to the flight deck, that is if no one happened to be making any electrical repairs.

The shaft was vacant in both directions. Malcolm breathed a sigh of relief as he secured the hatch. As tired as he was, and as inviting as the mechanical lift appeared, Kirk knew he'd have to travel the old fashioned way—rung by rung up the 111 meter ladder.

"If you're like your sisters in this class," Malcolm groaned, "you've got three main decks of cargo above the engines, then thirteen decks for personnel and passengers. Almost wish we were in freefall, wouldn't mind the tour." Malcolm put his boot on the first rung and started up ship.

At each deck's access hatch he listened for activity. The cargo decks were devoid of life, as expected with lift-off coming so soon.

"Of course!" Malcolm berated himself. "The crew will be up ship preparing for lift! Better get a move on. If they fire the jets while I'm stuck in this tunnel, I'll be nothing but a dark, wet smear at the bottom." Malcolm took his tongue-lashing like a man and swiftly acted on that advice.

The Earthman decided that inspecting the passenger decks would be futile, there were too many cabins and it was highly unlikely that a ship carrying goods destined for the black market would have outsiders on board. The same held true for the galley and stores deck. Who, in their right mind, would sit to a meal before departure?

Malcolm did pause to crack the pressure seal on the library and recreation deck. Most Ormics had acceleration couches in this area. He froze as an ugly voice filtered through the tiny opening.

"...repulsive little krisk, isn't she?"

"You might think so, given your taste for Herryian snake women, but I think Gonlyn and I might find a few uses for her before dumping the bitch out the lock."

"Ugh! How can you even contemplate such an act with anything as unlovely as she??"

"Talk about ugly?" a girl's voice said. Malcolm's heart stopped as he recognized the scornful tone and language. "You'd win first prize at a shit-face contest."

"What kind of talk is that?" the second voice demanded. "Sounds like Earthman to me."

"Don't worry about that, Kren. I'm sure she'll learn respect for her betters. I'm going up ship to see what is taking Gonlyn so long."

"You do that, Edloc. I'll question the girl. We ought to find out how she knew about us—who sent her."

"If you're going to question here as she did that woman you took from the Berinatin, I'd just as soon leave." The voice faded, as if the speaker departed from the library in haste.

Kren laughed. It was filled with such evil malice that Kirk's anger nearly made him throw open the hatch and run to the Parani's rescue. The only thing which prevented him from following that desire was the uncertainty of success. There might be others in the library and he was alone and unarmed.

"Get your hands off me!" Cindy exclaimed with hot indignation.

"Have to see if you carry any concealed weapons. Pretty things. Firm. Oh! Yes, I see. Hello? A stunner? Little girls should not play with such nasty things.

Malcolm's blood ran hot in his veins. The thought of Cindy being pawed infuriated him. He eased the hatch open a few millimeters. The girl was strapped down in an acceleration couch with a tall Krillite leaning over her. The villain's limbs shook with the characteristic signs of coa addiction. Malcolm did not have to see the man's face to know he'd find eyes so widely dilated to appear iris-less. The Krill reached into Cindy's open tunic, groping between her breasts and produced a second item which immediately captured his attention. Kirk did not care what the object was, as long as it kept the man from seeing him approach.

"What's a pretty thing like you doing with a pretty thing like this between your pretties?" Kren chuckled. He fondled Cindy's breasts with a heavy hand. It was the last conscious act the Krillite performed before Malcolm's crushing two-fisted blow—backed with all the weight of his massive frame—slammed into the pirate's neck.

Malcolm pulled the limp body off Cindy and let it fall to the deck. "Are you all right?" he whispered.

Cindy squealed happily. "I knew you—" Kirk clamped a hand over her mouth and warned her to be quiet. Cindy nodded.

Malcolm took that as a reply to his question and bent to lift the Krill. He folded the unconscious pirate into an adjoining chair and secured the man. As an after thought he relieved Kren of his Groton blaster.

"You are more trouble than you're worth," Malcolm said, closing Cindy's tunic.

"Will you untie me and let's get out of here?"

"How many on board?" he asked.

"Three — two now that you taken that bastard out."

Going to have to do something about your language, kid. Who is this Edloc? Didn't sound like a Krill or Parani to me."

"Vegan. You can't take him out the way you did Kren."

"Would even try, dear. I'd break bones trying to crack a Vegan's carapace. Okay. You stay here."

Cindy's desperate whisper stopped Malcolm from leaving. "Untie me!"

"I don't have time. You haven't seen me. You don't know what happened to our playmate. When the pilot calls for all stations, you either answer for him or moan and scream. They'll get the idea."


"For once you will do exactly as I say. Understand?" Kirk opened the electrical access and paused as Cindy struggled with her anger and the bonds. "I won't let anything happen to you, Cindy. Promise." Malcolm sealed the hatch and scrambled up the ladder.

The access to the flight deck was an overhead hatch; a part of the decking. Malcolm raised the cover a mere fraction until he could hear anything that went on. There were the sounds a pilot made preparing the console for take off. These were punctuated by occasional curses directed toward the captive in the library. The space port hailed the freighter and Gonlyn responded.

"Check, tower. We are in final count."

"You are cleared for lift at T minus 10."

"Affirmative. Praetues out." Gonlyn snapped a switch and spoke on the intercom. "Secure, Kren?"

Malcolm listened to Cindy's convincing screams over the open channel. The pilot muttered a string of curses, shouting, "Kren! Damn it! Are you secure?"

The seconds ticked by. Gonlyn growled, killing that channel and opening another. "Edloc, get to the library and tell that crazy Krill to wait until we take off."

Malcolm's palms were sweaty where he gripped the ladder rung. His legs and shoulders were tense from holding his position at the top of that long well. Gonlyn opened the library channel again, and Cindy's screams were now whimpering pleas for mercy. Her performance continued for a moment longer, then went suddenly quiet. Kirk's heart stopped until the hoped for communication came:

"Gonlyn!" Edloc's voice sounded tinny over the intercom. "Get down here fast. Kren is knocked out. There's somebody else on board!"

"By the Great Force!" Gonlyn shouted. "What else can go wrong? Eldoc, you go down ship and check the Jump Boat bay and Cargo. Be damn sure the Personnel Hatch is secure. I'll work my way down from the flight deck. We'll catch this bastard between us."

Malcolm grinned. He waited until the flight deck was clear before he popped out of the tunnel. His first action was to manually secure both the electrical and companionway hatches into the flight deck. His second action was to take the pilot's seat, check the board, scan the out ship radar, then hit the jets.

Kirk piled on the g's. When he had six, he twisted the Praetues on her tail three times. He smiled at the thought of unsecured bodies bouncing into steel bulkheads with bruising force. Malcolm did not set course for orbit, he opened communications with Paran Port Control instead.

"Praetues to Paran. Emergency on board. Clear all traffic. Repeat. Emergency on board. Will try to correct in-flight. Will set course for Patrol Sector Headquarters when possible. Steerage defective. Clear all traffic. Message on broadcast repeat."

Malcolm switched off the frantically sputtering voice of Paran Port Control. With the aid of the ship's computer, Kirk then charted the most direct course to Anarek and the orbiting Patrol HQ in that sector. The computer shut down the jets as part of the auto-jump sequence and then, seconds later, slipped the Praetues between the edges of space and time at the proper millisecond. Malcolm glanced at the trip ticket and noted elapsed time as 57 hours, 13 minutes and 23 seconds and counting before the ship was due to pop out 670 lights from Paran and only 2.5 billion miles from Anarek.

Malcolm kicked free of his seat and floated down the companionway. He found Gonlyn's weightless and unconscious body sucked against a ventilator grill. Hooking a hand under the Parani's belt, Malcolm relieved the pirate of all lethal hardware and pushed off toward the library with the limp body in tow.

Cindy was passed out as Malcolm stopped to collect Kren. He'd thought she would black out from the acceleration—few beings in the galaxy could stand the high gravs Earthmen routinely coped with. Malcolm located a two occupant passenger cabin on the deck below and deposited his burdens by simply pushing them inside and manually securing the corridor access against computer overrides. After he was satisfied with his precautions, Malcolm went looking for the Vegan.

Eldoc was wedged beneath the gravity ladder between the cargo deck and a bulkhead wall. His appendages, among which were a pair of mighty chelea, were completely pinned. Kirk lost no time in divesting Edloc of his weapons. The Earthman rapped the Vegan on the side of his triangular "head" to get Edloc's undivided attention.

"You've got one of two choices, my friend," Malcolm said. "Either of which suits me fine."

Edloc responded with a stream of vilification. Malcolm rapped the bony carapace a bit harder with the cold muzzle of the Groton blaster. He let Edloc stare down the yawning orifice of the weapon for several seconds before resuming his conversation with the Vegan.

"I might just let you hang right there for the duration of the ship; or, you can enjoy the spacious comfort the that storage locker to your right. Which will it be?"

"It's no contest, Earthman. The storage locker. Obviously." The Vegan would have smiled if his physiology permitted. Once free and given some time alone, his tremendous strength would be able to force the locker door.

Malcolm grinned. "Sounds like a wise decision to me. Don't run off now, I'll bring a jack and get you free."

The Earthman used great caution releasing the Vegan and moved out of reach with the blaster in hand. Edloc, on the other hand, had no intention of offering an excuse for the Earthman to discharge the Groton, so the transfer into the locker was made without incident. Malcolm dogged the hatch. Moments later the Vegan listened to a series of mysterious sounds on the door's outer surface.

"What are you doing, Earthman?"

"Nothing much. Just want to make sure you'll stay put." There were more sounds, then silence. "Edloc, do me a favor."

"Why should I?" the quarrelsome Vegan replied.

"Why not? Touch the door panel for me, will you?"

Edloc was amused. He was going to do that anyway. "Yeow!" The Vegan jerked back, nursing the stinging pain that partially paralyzed his left chelea. "What the flek did you do?"

"Nothing much," Malcolm chuckled. "There was a spare electrical buss nearby. I welded it to the door. By the way, that was only a thousand volts. I know you could handle that if you had to, but I've stepped the power up by ten-K. Please don't do anything rash. You'd make an awful mess and stink up the locker. Bye."

Malcolm looked in on the other prisoners. "Are you fellows comfy?" The glares of angry frustration were the only answer supplied. "Gee, aren't we in a snit! Well, get some sleep, it's a long trip."

Cindy was awake when Kirk re-entered the library. She stopped struggling against the seat straps the instant she saw the big Earthman. "I don't know how you did it, but I am so glad to see you! Get me out of this thing!"

Kirk swam across the library until he hovered over her chair. There was no welcoming or happy expression on his face. Cindy frowned as he stared at her, until she had to turn her gaze away from his stern look. With a very tiny voice she asked, "What are you going to do with me?"

"We've got a few things to settle and I don't like having my shins kicked. What possessed you to think you could take this bucket of cut-throats by yourself? My impetuous little girl, you could have gotten both of us killed."

"It was your choice to come, not mine," Cindy countered through clenched teeth. "You were previously engaged with that...that..." The Parani woman jerked at her confinement, totally frustrated. "Besides," she added, giving up the futile exercise, "I've almost completed the Falconi Mechanics. I've been on every pickup with you. I know what to do."

"Maybe you think you do, but I know you don't! Look at the mess you made of this. Hell, if I hadn't come along when I did, there's no telling what might have happened to you before they made you breathe space."

Cindy remembered her terror when Kren mauled her. She knew Malcolm was only telling the truth. "But you did come." That was said graciously. Her next question was timid, yet accusing. "What I don't understand is why you came. You haven't been... I mean... We haven't been getting along."

"Has nothing to do with anything. I like you. I didn't want you to be hurt by me, or anyone else. You still didn't tell me why you took this assignment from Marva. You must have known it was extremely dangerous if she offered 40,000 credits!"

"I took it," Cindy shouted through tears, "so you could get passage off world and out of my life!"

Malcolm knit his brows together, frowning. His voice was husky. "Is that what you want?"

"Apparently you do, or why would you be out with that female krisk? You're such a prick, Malcolm Kirk."

"She means nothing to me. First time I was ever alone with her."

"You expect me to believe that?"

"Have I ever lied to you about anything important?

"How should I know? You've never told me where you get all your credits — not that you weren't generous with what you had, but how did you manage to keep so much on hand? Marva was slowly starving us with stock."

"Then you admit Marva hasn't been exactly the most ethical-minded, far-sighted, and to be admired being for having visions of an interstellar trover agency? I'll tell you one thing, Marva was going to strip this ship of her cargo. For all we know, the Praetues isn't hot, but the cargo certainly is! That damn Marva! Here I've been letting her sit in on the poker games and she rewards us with a potentially fatal assignment so she can line her own pockets!"

"Poker? I've heard of that in Earthman movies. What does that refer to?"

"It's a game of chance, darling. I own the only Earthman-made deck of cards in the sector. You see, Marva knew where I was because she's been coming out to try her luck. Most of the people I've been playing with are spacers on shore leave."

"What did you call me?" Cindy's voice was down a notch and quite breathless. She lay quietly on the couch, lips slightly parted.

"What?" The question was so unexpected Malcolm paused. She looked so innocent, so lovely. He suddenly remembered closing her tunic and found the cabin unbearably warm.

Cindy began to smile, her eyes brightening with happy moisture. "'Darling', wasn't it?"

"Slip of the tongue, kid." Malcolm blushed. "As for that lady you saw me with, I'm not guilty of doing anything, though you could hang an intent to do rap on me. You've been pushing me so hard lately. I tried everything I could think of to get you off my mind; cold showers; physical exercise; an astrogator's brush up course; gambling—nothing worked. That woman was my last resort."

"Some last resort," Cindy almost sneered. "She was very pretty."

"Not as pretty as you...but that's beside the point. On Earth you'd be about seventeen or eighteen and I'm pushing past my prime. I'm set in my ways. I have a horrible personality. I would only cause you pain and heart ache. I couldn't see how we could live together without you getting hurt or hating each other."

Cindy was confused. "Live together?" Malcolm jumped from one subject to another almost as rapidly as the Praetues could scoot through a worm hole.

"Changed my mind," Malcolm continued, ignoring the Parani's question. "By the way, you'll have to finish your Falconi course later, you won't make it back in time for your next class. We're on course for Anarek. Anyway, I was thinking that when we turn this ship and cargo over to the Patrol, we stand to collect 20,000 times the amount Marva offered you just for the return of the Berinatin cargo alone." Malcolm plucked the 10,000 credit piece slowly floating toward him out of the air. "We'll consider this Marva's payoff for the stock certificates we'll void. As for the rest, who knows what it is worth?"

Malcolm Kirk stuffed the coin inside a velcro pocket and continued. "We ought to have enough credits to pick up a nice used freighter, maybe even the Praetues herself if the owner is willing to sell. Good solid ship. I should know, I've been through her guts.

"But before I untie you, I want to be damn sure you won't be tempted to shove a vibro-blade in my guts some night when we're sleeping on our own ship. Hey!" he grinned, "There might even be a reward for the three hooligans cooling their heels down ship! Well? What do you say?"

"What does that have to do with me being tied up?"

"Because you're hard-headed."

"Come here." Cindy's voice was even-tempered and sweet to the Earthman's ears. Malcolm studied her lovely face and noted the Parani was relaxed and smiling. He drifted closer.

"Does it make any difference that we are only compatible to nine places?" Cindy asked with a whisper. "We can't have off-spring."

Malcolm's face split in a wide grin. "Never had any use for the mewling, screeching, obnoxious, miniature..."

"Shut up and kiss me," Cindy cheerfully pleaded.

Malcolm applied himself to the task with a will. Cindy's response was warm and happy. Kirk pulled his face away and stared into her smoke-grey eyes. "Are you sure, dear? We'll be knocking about this old galaxy trying to make a buck. We'll always be broke or on the edge of financial ruin. This ship, or one like it, will be all we can call home—and don't forget, I am an old, grouchy Earthman. Would you be happy?" Malcolm stroked her cheek tenderly. "Is that okay with you?"

Cindy smiled and presented her lips again. Malcolm bent down, only to jerk back with a yelp. He rubbed his lower lip, which had been bitten rather hard.

Cindy smiled angelically. "It is quite fine with me, darling, if you untie my hands in the next ten seconds!"

Malcolm began removing the ropes.