Chapter One

~ May 27th, 2288 ~



"I'm going to kill Nuccol," Hussosi said, as he stared intently at the frothy glass of ale on the table in front of him. The words, uttered in not much more than a whisper, belied the seething fury the speaker was experiencing. "I'm not going to take his crap another day. Just because he's the shift supervisor, he thinks he can push me around constantly and that I'll just take it." Wearing the same grey coveralls seen on most workers on this part of Ogsnara, there was little to distinguish Hussosi from the other Uthlaran workers drowning their sorrows in the ale and strong spirits served up by filthy, run-down taverns in the warehouse district.

"Relax," his Uthlaran companion said calmly after a surreptitious glance around the dimly-lit room that always stunk of stale ale and greasy fried food. "You're not going to kill anybody. That's the ale talking. And as shift supervisor, it's his job to ride us."

"He doesn't ride you, does he?"

"He's afraid of me."

"Well— I'm going to make him afraid of me too. I swear he'll regret the way he's treated me. When I was recruited by the Brotherhood, I knew I wasn't being hired because I had a great mind, but nobody told me I'd have to work for a jerk like Nuccol. He's always on my back. He never lets up. No matter what I do, it's not good enough. And if that wasn't bad enough, the stuff we're doing violates Galactic Alliance law. I keep expecting them to drop on us and throw me into some dark cell just before they toss away the key. That is, if they don't just come here and wipe us out from space. I've heard how precise their weapons are from someone who was on Milor when they bombed them back to the stone age. The media was constantly reporting hits on hospitals and schools around the planet, but the only things that really got hit were military targets like weapons depots or important government targets such as power generating stations."

"First, Space Command would never destroy this city from space. They don't do things like that simply because someone breaks one of their sacred laws. Carver didn't even destroy Uthlarigasset after the political leadership ordered an invasion of GA space. Besides, Space Command isn't within two thousand light-years of this planet. Region Two problems have kept them so busy they haven't even given a thought to Region Three yet. We probably have years before they get around to us. So take it easy on the ale, okay. That's your fifth mug since we got here."

"Take it easy? Take it easy? How can I take it easy. I can't hardly sleep at night and my stomach is so upset all the time that I can't keep my food down. The only thing I can do well is drink. But that's no way to live. I can't go on like this. If I wanted constant stress I would have joined the military. I just want to live a nice, peaceful life, and live to a ripe old age. I guess I need to quit the Brotherhood and do some respectable work— like making book."

"You don't quit the Star Brotherhood, chum. You knew that when you joined. And if you let slip one word of what you just said to me, one of the senior brothers will make sure you don't live long enough to wonder if you made a mistake by opening your mouth."

"Makkod, when I joined the Brotherhood I had a nice, quiet life taking bets on sporting events. The recruiter told me I'd continue doing that, but as part of the Brotherhood, I'd make a lot more money for my efforts. Then they moved me here and stuck me under Nuccol."

"Keep your voice down. Space Command may not be around here, but that doesn't mean some local gang wouldn't love to move in on our operation. We have it soft, and I don't want to blow it."

"You think this is soft? At the end of every shift my back aches so much I need to pop a handful of Kuloos or I'd never get to sleep at all."

"It sure beats laying a thousand kilometers of track through a Crenery bog."

"You did that?"

"Yep. For three years. Until I killed my foreman and they fired me for it."

"They only fired you for killing your foreman?"

"Well, I made it look like an accident. His head accidently got caught in the gears of the track alignment crane. Since it didn't appear intentional, they recorded it as an industrial accident and fired me for carelessness in leaving the gear cover off after I completed the daily lubrication maintenance."

"Smart."

"Nah, it was damn stupid. I really needed that job, just like you need this one. My temper got the better of me and I lost control for a few seconds. But I couldn't stand that SOB a minute longer. He was lucky I didn't do it years earlier. I understand what you're going through, but try to stay calm and forget Nuccol after you leave work. Say, do you know who that Terran is over against the wall?"

Hussosi looked up and scanned the room until he spotted the person Makkod was referring to. The Terran was sitting in the most remote part of the tavern, and was barely visible among the darkest of the room's shadows. "Nope. Doesn't look familiar. Looks mean though."

"I'm the meanest SOB in this part of town. Maybe I should explain it to him so he knows it also."

"Why do you always have to pick fights when you drink?"

"It's what I do. It keeps the locals in line. Listen," Makkod said as he stood up, "I've got to get some sleep. That last shift wiped me out. Ready to go?"

"No, you go ahead. I wouldn't be able to sleep anyway."

Makkod grabbed his outerwear from the chair on his right. After donning his head covering, he wrapped his heavy cloak around his shoulders. The weather had turned cold a few weeks earlier as winter began on this part of the planet. Now that the sun was down, the wind would be biting cold. Makkod looked down at his friend once more before turning away. He duty was clear. He had to inform the Brotherhood that Hussosi was falling apart. On his way home he would stop at the section headquarters and inform the duty person. Enforcers would probably be waiting for Hussosi when he arrived home. He would be drunk and easy to dispose of. It was too bad. Makkod had always enjoyed having a few drinks with his friend after work. "Okay," Makkod said, "but don't talk to anyone if you value your life. If the person you talk to doesn't kill you, the Brotherhood will."

"Yeah, I'll keep quiet— until I'm smashing Nuccol's head in. Then I'll roar."

Makkod turned towards the door, then paused, turned again, and walked to the Terran's table. Stopping in front of it, he waited for his presence to be acknowledged. Terrans weren't especially numerous in Ogsnara, but neither were they uncommon.

After ten seconds of waiting, Makkod, angry over being ignored, said in a loud voice, "What are you doing here, Terran? This tavern is restricted to Uthlarans only." The remark was untrue, but Makkod wanted a reason to pick a fight.

The stranger, until now staring into a three-quarters-filled mug of ale, looked up slowly, but not far enough for Makkod to see much of his face. The wide brim of the his hat, coupled with Makkod's angle of view from a standing position, hid all but his chin.

For his part, the stranger was only able to see Makkod's body from his neck to where his lower torso disappeared behind the table. But it was enough to see the lattice pistol Makkod wore in a holster strapped to his side. Few workers in the city carried such weapons. You'd find tons of knives or tools that could be used for stabbing among the rough and tough city dwellers, and even objects that could be used as blunt force weapons, but there were few expensive weapons that fired projectiles or energy beams. This Uthlaran either had a job where he provided significant security, or he wanted people to know he wasn't someone they should challenge if they valued their life. Perhaps it was both.

Trader Vyx was also someone not to be challenged by people who valued their life. If Makkod continued his belligerence, he would soon receive a painful lesson about picking fights with strangers. Vyx watched him carefully, and when Makkod placed his hand on the grip of the pistol, Vyx kicked the chair opposite him at the table into Makkod with all the considerable power in his right leg.

The Uthlaran was caught completely by surprise and fell backward to the floor with a grunt. As he landed, Makkod tried to pull his lattice weapon from its holster.

Vyx never hesitated once battle was joined, and his glass of ale went flying as he flipped the heavy table onto the prostrate Uthlaran. Once unencumbered by the presence of a table blocking his movement, Vyx stood up and waited to see what Makkod would do. Using his peripheral vision, he watched for any signs that other bar patrons intended to rush to the Uthlaran's defense. No one did, not even the friend with whom Makkod had been sitting. Perhaps they felt that Makkod needed no help against the smaller Terran, or perhaps they just didn't like him enough to risk their skin.

The Uthlaran's weapon was lying on the floor, half a meter from its owner, as Vyx straightened up. Only the head of the Uthlaran was visible from beneath the table until Makkod pushed it off and twisted to locate his lattice pistol.

Vyx pulled back the right side of his heavy cloak and flipped it over his shoulder so it wouldn't interfere with drawing his own, now exposed, pistol from its holster. "Try it and you lose a hand— or worse," Vyx said in a menacing voice as the Uthlaran reached for his pistol.

Makkod froze, only then realizing that Vyx was armed as well, and appeared to be someone who would know how to use it. He looked again at his pistol while weighing the fact that Vyx's laser pistol was still holstered. The tavern patrons watched the tense situation in frightened silence. Then in the blink of an eye, Makkod made his move.

Vyx had already concluded that the Uthlaran on the floor would never capitulate, and so fully anticipated the movement when it came. He had already decided on a course of action. He knew his laser could slice through soft tissue in an instant, but bone was a different matter. It could take several seconds to fully cut through a Uthlaran's arm. So as he pulled his pistol, he didn't even try to sever the arm reaching for the gun. Instead he simply swept the narrow beam through the upper chest area where the Uthlaran's heart was located. It was possible to simply incapacitate the Uthlaran through pain if he moved the laser quickly enough, but Vyx couldn't be sure the cut would be deep enough for that. He needed to prevent the Uthlaran from shooting him with the lattice pistol. He went for the kill.

Makkod couldn't believe that the Terran had beaten him as the laser beam punctured his chest and destroyed his heart. His pistol had already been out on the floor. All he had to do was pick it up and fire, but he was dead before he managed to wrap his hand around the grip, and never even touched the trigger. As his strength ebbed and everything grew black around him, he cursed his folly for bracing a stranger.

Vyx didn't holster his pistol immediately, fearing that someone might now try to avenge Makkod's death. So he stood there watching the tavern patrons as they avoided eye contact and resume their peaceful drinking. When no one made a move to retaliate for Makkod's death, not even the Uthlaran that Makkod had been sitting with, Vyx relaxed his arm and replaced the pistol in the holster. He waited another thirty seconds before pulling the table upright and righting the chair. To punctuate the finality of the situation, he gestured to the bartender than he'd need another ale to replace the one that had been spilled when he'd kicked the table over. He picked up the lattice pistol and placed it on the table, near to his chair.

The bartender gave Vyx a wary look as he brought a fresh mug of ale and set it on the table in front of him. With the cook assisting, the bartender then carried Makkod's body outside and unceremoniously dropped it into the street just beyond the walkway. Never one to pass up the opportunity to collect for services rendered, the bartender went through his pockets, taking anything of interest or value, before returning inside and calling the disposal truck. He looked at the lattice pistol on the table twice, but didn't have the nerve to ask Vyx for it. The cook got to keep Makkod's boots and cloak. If the body disposal truck didn't arrive quickly, all they'd find when they did arrive would be a naked corpse. As on the Gollasko Colony in Region One, on Scruscotto, and on many other planets, there was no law here. There was a central government, and they even issued currency, but both the government and the currency were a joke. And even if there had been law enforcement, a dozen witnesses had seen Makkod taunt a stranger who was minding his own business and trying to peacefully enjoyed an ale as far away from everyone in the tavern as possible. Makkod simply provoked the wrong stranger, and paid the supreme price often associated with supreme stupidity.

* * *

It was nearing dinnertime when Vyx returned to the spaceport where the Scorpion occupied one of the larger pads. If the cargo ship had been any larger, the team would have had to leave the ship in orbit and take a shuttle down, but it's ability to land on a planet had been one of the main selling points when Vyx acquired it at Stewart Space Command Base from then Commanding Officer Captain Jenetta Carver. And it was there, just before the team was assigned to work in Region Three, that the FTL drive was upgraded to the same model used on Space Command's Scout-Destroyers. It was a shame they couldn't sheath the craft in Dakinium, not that Space Command would have allowed it, but it would be wonderful if they could attain Light-9790 instead of just Light-487.

The other members of his team weren't in the Scorpion when he entered, so he cleaned up, then began to work with the day's recorded information.

Removing enough clothing to bare his upper torso, Vyx delicately removed the tiny recording wafer from a subcutaneous pouch in his chest beneath his left arm.

A chip attached to the optic nerve of his left eye allowed him to record everything he observed, and chips embedded in the audio canals of his ears added stereo audio tracks. As the information was picked up, it traveled through his lymphatic system to be delivered to a tiny wireless recording device mounted over the ribs beneath his left arm. Limiting the transmission to biological functions meant that no transmission signal could ever be picked up by detection scanners. The device itself contained almost no metal, so it was never sensed by weapons or electronics scanners.

Vyx dressed again before heading to the ship's bridge where he carefully slid the tiny silicon wafer, only slightly thicker than an ordinary piece of writing paper, into a computer interface device and depressed the 'play' button. When he reached the images of the two Uthlarans from the tavern, he instructed the computer to identify the two men. It could take a considerable amount of time to accomplish the task, and they might not even be in the ship's identification database, so Vyx walked to the lounge that adjoined the galley.

The other four agents had now returned from their day's activities of eavesdropping in taverns. All had cleaned up, and three were relaxing in the lounge while Byers prepared dinner.

Albert Byers, whose cover at one time had been as a short order cook, had assumed responsibility for preparing all meals since joining the team. He didn't think of it as chore— he loved to cook— and even more, he loved to eat. Whenever anyone tried to assist him, he immediately shooed them out of his galley. As the senior officer and team leader, it was Vyx's ship, but no one ever disagreed with Byers' assertion that it was his galley. Cleanup was handled by the bots, so the only time anyone else ever entered was when they were seeking a snack.

On this evening, the main course would be Chicken Parmesan, mashed potatoes, rice pilaf, and broccoli, with a green and yellow salad as the appetizer. Byers wasn't much for fancy gourmet dishes, but prepared stupendous home-style meals.

As Terrans had moved out among the stars, their favorite foods had followed them, courtesy of merchants eager to cash in by supplying the desired foodstuffs. On Uthlarigasset, where the indigenous population didn't openly resent the presence of Terrans, chicken and beef were now almost as easy to acquire as Tarlovo, a large Uthlarigasset snake-lizard that resembled the Komodo Dragon of Earth. Considered a delicacy by Uthlarans, Tarlovo were raised by most meat farmers on the planet, but it was usually avoided by Terrans. The team had purposely overstocked the larder with Terran food before proceeding to Ogsnara on the planet Bleadalto, where it was significantly more difficult and expensive to find such items.

As Vyx plopped down next to Brenda Cardiz, a fellow agent and the love of his life for some years now, he said to the group, "I overheard an interesting snippet of info today." As all looked in his direction, he added, "I overheard two Uthlarans talking. One said that the Star Brotherhood have him violating GA Charter laws."

"Which laws?" Brenda asked.

"He never said. His friend told him to shut up."

"He has a smart friend," Kathryn Earlich said.

"Not really. His friend got up to leave, spotted me sitting at the far side of the tavern, and decided to see if he could cower me. Things escalated quickly and concluded with a shootout."

"You don't appear to be wounded," Nelligen said, "so I imagine the friend is a little worse for wear."

"That's one way to describe it."

"What's another way?" Brenda asked.

"The last time I saw him," Vyx said as he pulled the lattice pistol from his waistband at his back and dropped it onto the lounge table, "he was being carried out to await a free ride in the body disposal truck."

"Well I guess we won't be getting any information from him," Kathryn said.

"Dinner's ready," Byers called from the galley.

As the team reassembled at the dinner table, Byers placed a large serving platter filled with chicken on the surface. The other food was already on the table and everyone began to help themselves. Once hunger pangs slackened, the conversation resumed.

"I got a good look at the two Uthlarans, so the computer is trying to ID them," Vyx said. "Hopefully we can learn a little more about them and what GA law they might be breaking. It could be illegal drugs, smuggling, counterfeiting, slavery, sedition, or whatever."

"Sedition is a bit of a stretch," Kathryn said.

"Not so much as you'd think when you remember that the Star Brotherhood is involved. There's a long history of politicians working with and for organized crime. The Brotherhood might be working with the planetary leaders of Uthlarigasset in their unannounced quest to force the GA out of Region Three."

Following dinner, Vyx checked on his computer search, and then headed to the quarters he shared with Brenda.

"So who are they?" Cardiz asked as she examined her face in the sink mirror.

"Dunno— yet," he said as he came up behind her and kissed her neck gently. He pulled his head back slightly, but didn't remove his arm from around her waist. "The computer is still looking for a match. It could take hours, or perhaps we'll never find a match at all."

"Weren't the images clear enough?"

"They're fine. But you can't find a match if we don't have them on file. As you know, when Space Command performs a ship inspection in space, we download the ship's entire crew roster, including images, so we can verify passports and check for wanted felons among the crew. But if the two Uthlarans have never worked in space, or at least never on a ship that was interdicted, they won't be in the system."

"Or if our files are out-of date."

"Every time we go off-planet, I request an update from Space Command. The files are usually current before we reach our destination. On our last trip, where we followed that freighter to the border with open space, we were off planet long enough to verify we've downloaded everything collected by SCI and been made available to agents since we entered Region Three. If our guys are in the files, we'll get their histories. At least as much as the files contain."

"We might be able to get a name from the body deposal unit."

"Yes, if they even have it. If nobody claims the body, and doesn't even identify it, they'll just cremate him and mark the file with their equivalent of 'John Doe.'"

"But you said he was with a friend."

"Yes, and I know the friend called him Makkod, but that's a pretty common name on Uthlarigasset. We'll just have to see."

* * *

"Hussosi, where's Makkod?" the foreman yelled up to where Hussosi was working on a storage platform.

"Don't know for sure," Hussosi yelled back. "He might be dead."

"Dead? Since when?"

"Yesterday."

"Get your butt down here."

Hussosi walked to where a crane operator was lifting a load, then hitched a ride down after the load was placed.

"Tell me what happened," Nuccol said when Hussosi reached him.

"Makkod picked a fight with a stranger. He was always doing that. The stranger was faster. He shot him. That's all."

"And you decided not to tell us."

"I thought you'd know."

"How would I know?"

"I don't know. But you always tell me the Brotherhood knows everything. So I thought you'd know."

"Who's the stranger?"

"I don't know. He's a Terran."

"A Terran? A Terran kills one of our brothers and you don't report it?"

"I thought you'd know."

"Get back to work, imbecile."

"Uh, can I have Makkod's job now that there's a vacancy?"

"No, his job requires someone with a brain. Now get back to work."

* * *

"What have you learned?" Lippaula asked.

"Makkod died from a laser shot to the heart, boss," Gillanno answered. "He was dead in seconds. Do you want his body?"

"No, let them burn it. I want the man who did it. I want to know why he shot one of our people."

"The why isn't difficult to answer. Makkod picked fights all the time with people he thought were weaker. He liked to smash them down so they'd remember who he was and fear him. This time, he picked a fight with someone who wasn't afraid, and who wasn't weak. He's a Terran, as Hussosi told us, but he's different."

"Different how."

"His name is Trader Vyx. He's said to be a smuggler. He and his crew of four are laying over while they try to find a cargo."

"What does he smuggle?"

"According to people that have met him, anything that offers a good payday. He doesn't seem particular."

"Do we have him listed in our files?"

"No, but the Raiders had a file on him. They list him as a smuggler and gunrunner. I've uploaded the file to our database."

"He's worked for the Raiders?"

"He's worked for people that have worked for them. His reputation is that he's reliable and always delivers what he promises. But if you cross him or cheat him, you either turn up dead, or are never seen again. He's as dangerous as they come and he's someone you don't pick a fight with if you want to continue living. Makkod made a mistake because Vyx is a Terran. He thought him to be naturally weak because Terrans are so much shorter than Uthlarans."

"Could he be working for the Raiders now?"

"They didn't say that he is."

"They wouldn't. This could be a move on our operation here."

"But Makkod started it."

"You're sure that Makkod started it? Absolutely sure? The Terran didn't taunt him into drawing first?"

"No question about that. There was a tavern full of witnesses. Trader Vyx was alone, sitting away from everyone else in the tavern. He was minding his own business, drinking an ale, when Makkod saw him and decided to teach him who was boss in that part of town. But it was Makkod who learned the lesson."

"This Trader Vyx sounds interesting. I want to meet him. Bring him to me."

"How?"

"Use your imagination."

"And if he doesn't want to come?"

"Bring him anyway."

"Any way?"

"Try not to kill him— yet."

End of Chapter 1


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