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A Passage to Extolay

This article originally appeared in Issue #013, January 2011, of the downloadable PDF magazine.

As he strolled down the starport concourse the security guard scanned the sparse crowds.

Dav Geddis looked down at his plate of food as the officer’s gaze passed over him, forcing himself to relax. He mustn’t blow it now by looking suspicious.

He felt the tension within rise as the security officer drew closer to the food bar. It didn’t appear that the man was looking for anybody in particular, but the stress was nearly unbearable. Dav pushed his mind outwards to touch the guard’s thoughts.

«Two more hours and I’m outta here. Can’t wait to see her again and...» Dav withdrew from the man’s mind. He didn’t need to know any more than that. Knowing too much was what had got him into trouble in the first place.

They’d warned him that returning home would be difficult with his newly found abilities. But with the Frontier War over, he’d longed for the simpler farm life he’d lived on Rech before joining up with the army. He’d thought he could conceal his gifts, but the temptation to use them had proved too great. When he had found his sister crying and distraught, it seemed to be the most natural thing to read her thoughts and find the cause of her pain, even to ease that pain a little. The look she had given him when she realised that he knew too much shocked him.

It was fear. Pure, unreasoning fear.

He’d pleaded with her not to tell anybody, hoping she would understand, but those hopes quickly evaporated. Within hours he was chased from the settlement by an angry mob of people he had known since he was a child. What hurt the most was to see his own family, his sister and his parents, at the forefront. Some in the crowd had even worn shielded helmets to protect themselves from him, as though he were a monster.

He couldn’t really blame them. A few years ago he would have been at the head of such a mob himself. It wasn’t natural to poke around in another man’s head, it just wasn’t right. That was what they had always been taught. How could he expect them to abandon a lifetime of conditioning?

His remaining hope was that they wouldn’t contact the authorities, but how could he rely on that after what had happened?

The security officer had continued on his rounds of the concourse and Dav returned to eating his meal, a bland mix of unknown meat and local vegetables. D class starports were not known for their luxurious fare. He took his time over the food, and the call for his ship came shortly after he had finished.

“Passengers for the Empress Catharine, bound for Dinomn, please report to Bay 3.”

Dav allowed himself to entertain the hope that he might get away, that his family and former friends did not wish him lasting harm. He gathered his few bags together and followed the signs for Bay 3, joining the end of a short queue of people showing their tickets to the ship’s steward.

At the head of the queue were a man and woman, obviously travelling together. The quality of their clothing and an unweathered softness to their skin marked them as wealthy MegaCorp types; the sort who wouldn’t last five minutes on a low tech world. The man wore a look of pained boredom whilst the woman presented their paperwork to the steward.

The woman who followed them was a contrast. Her clothing was designed for comfort and practicality, and included a utility belt which sported several electronic gadgets and an autopistol. She was probably no older than the couple before her, perhaps in her early forties, but a harder life had left its marks.

Following her was a man of about thirty. Everything about him, his bearing, his build, even his haircut marked him as military; probably, like Dav, another soldier demobbed after the war.

The man just ahead of him, a tall smartly dressed fellow of indeterminate age, seemed to take forever when he reached the front, and Dav had to exert all his willpower to keep from butting in and hurrying the man up.

“Thank you, Mr. Andrish, that’s fine,” the steward said. “If you’d just like to wait with the others, I’ll process our last passenger.”

Dav spotted two more security men a hundred metres or so away. They seemed to be scanning the crowd methodically as if looking for somebody.

“One last thing,” Andrish said, “I have a crate being brought over. I’d like to make sure it’s secure in the cargo hold before we take off.”

Hurry up! Dav screamed in his mind.

“Of course,” the steward said, “As long as the paperwork is in order that shouldn’t be a problem.”

Finally, it was Dav’s turn. The guards were still coming closer. He handed his ticket to the steward.

“Ah, Mr. Geddis,” he said. “On a Middle passage ticket. I understand that you’re on your way to Extolay. We’ll be heading that way ourselves if you want to stay with us.”

“Don’t see why not,” Dav said, trying to speak as calmly as he could. All that really mattered for now was getting off Rech.

The steward glanced at the cased rifle slung over Dav's shoulder. “You’ll need to deposit any weapons in the ship’s locker, but we’ll deal with that once we get on board.”

The security guards were still some fifty metres away as Dav and the steward turned and made for the doorway to Bay 3. Everybody fitted filter masks; the irritant atmosphere making them an unfortunate necessity for any outdoor activity on the planet. They then exited the building onto the bay itself. If the guards were looking for him, they’d have come straight here, Dav reasoned. His name was on the passenger list after all. Even so, such watertight logic didn’t stop him hurrying just a little on the walk to the ship.

The Empress Catharine, despite her high sounding name, was a typical Far Trader. Standing in the center of the bay, the curves of the design were quite pleasing to the eye, but from the wear and tear visible on the exterior, she had obviously seen more than a few years of service.

The steward led them up some stairs to the already opened airlock and once inside, he took the passengers’ weapons from them and stowed them in the ship’s locker. It was mostly the expected autopistols that many carried when they travelled. The only exceptions were his own Advanced Combat Rifle, a faithful friend he’d been allowed to keep when he left the army, and a Gauss Rifle handed in by Meldan, the other military man. He glanced over at Dav and they exchanged a nod of acknowledgement.

Getting all seven of them into the lift down to the passenger area was a bit of a squeeze, but soon they were in the lounge, a functional mix of a small galley, eating area and assorted chairs. There was even a large entertainment screen on the front wall but it, like the rest of the furnishings showed signs of age and use.

It took a couple of minutes for the high passengers to choose their staterooms. The couple, a Mr. and Mrs. Megguran, took the front two rooms on one side, whilst Andrish took the front room on the other. That left the rear rooms for the woman, Meldan and himself.

Dav gratefully closed the door behind him, threw his bags to the floor and settled onto the bed. It was a long half hour wait for the ship to lift off and only then did he finally begin to believe that he had got away safely. Now he could think forward to Extolay. They’d said he might have to start a new life, and had given him a name and address of a contact there. He’d hoped he wouldn’t have to use it, but then things had a habit of turning out differently to the way he wanted. They always had.

Almost out of habit now, Dav pushed the senses of his mind outwards through the ship, noting the minds of each of the other people on board. Two up in the ship’s bridge; the pilot and navigator, no doubt. The engineer right at the back tending to the drives as they moved out towards their jump point. Also towards the rear, the almost still minds of the Low passengers, and finally close by, the five that would be the steward and passengers.

Wait. Five?

There should be six. Maybe the steward had gone to the bridge? Dav got up and opened his door a fraction to peer out. The steward working in the galley.

Either one of the minds on the bridge was a passenger or somebody wasn’t showing up on a life scan.

Dav’s first thought was that this was somehow related to his flight from Rech. Reason told him otherwise. Why would anybody follow him onto the ship? Somebody not showing up on a life scan meant one of three things: the person was dead, which was unlikely; they were wearing a psionic shield helmet, or they were psionic themselves, naturally and unconsciously shielding themselves as Dav himself was.

Whichever it was, he would be in the best position to learn more once his strength returned. That was going to take several hours and it had been a long day, so he decided to sleep for a while.

When he awoke, he checked the room’s computer and found that they had already entered jump space. That was one piece of good news at any rate, though it closed a chapter on his life.

Stewing on it would do no good, and he had something else that demanded his attention.

Leaving his room, he headed for the galley to get some food and drink. The lounge area was empty apart from the steward, who was checking his stock levels in the galley, and Meldan who was half-watching something on the entertainment screen.

“Hello, Mr. Geddis,” the steward said, “I hope you slept well?”

“Yes thanks,” he said opening a random cupboard to try and find a cup. “Please, skip the formalities, though. I’m happy for you to call me Dav if you let me call you something other than ‘steward’.”

The man smiled. “I’m Jared,” he said. “And cups and plates are there, pre-packed meals there and drinks over there,” he continued, gesturing at several cupboards in rapid succession.

“Thanks Jared,” he said, reaching for a carton of mango juice from one of the cupboards.

“So, what takes you to Extolay?” the steward asked.

“A new life,” Dav replied. “I went back home to Rech after the war, but things weren’t the way I thought they would be.”

Jared nodded, though Dav knew he didn’t really understand.

“A war can do things like that; make a place you’ve known forever seem different, somehow.”

Dav looked over towards the ex-soldier sitting across the room.

“Do you know his story yet?” he asked Jared.

“Mr. Meldan…? We’ve had a brief chat. He’s on his way to Efate to join a Merc unit after being demobbed. Probably to help with the troubles there.”

Dav thanked Jared and wandered over to the couch where Meldan was sitting. It offered a reasonable view of the room and the doors to the staterooms.

“Mind if I join you?” he asked.

Meldan looked up. “Sure, take a seat,” he said. “I’ve seen this vid at least three times before but there’s not much choice on this old crate. The name’s Karl Meldan.”

“I’m Dav Geddis. Jared tells me you’re joining a Merc unit on Efate? You obviously don’t want a quiet life.”

Meldan grinned.

“You know what they say about an old dog and new tricks. Soldiering is what I know. Can’t really see myself doing anything else.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Dav said. “I tried going back home to the farm. I lasted all of three weeks. Where did you serve?”

“Sword Worlds mostly. How about you?”

“Would you believe I spent most of the war guarding a research station? They spent all that time and money teaching me how to shoot straight and then stuck me in the middle of nowhere for two years. The Swordies put up quite a fight by the sounds of it?”

“Didn’t they just,” Meldan said. “We had the tech advantage; it should have been a walk in the park. They just didn’t know when to give up. There was this time on Biter when we caught two squads of them separated from their unit…”

Meldan started off on an old army story. Half listening and nodding in the right places, Dav used the opportunity to perform another life scan, this time just keeping to the passenger area. To the port side of the ship, he sensed two people in one cabin. There was the three of them in the lounge and one more mind in the central starboard stateroom. That left Andrish’s cabin empty and no sign of him in the lounge. He would need to wait and watch to confirm it, but it looked like Andrish was his man.

“… and even when there was just two of them left, they kept coming, like they were the ones hunting us!” Meldan said, drawing to the end of his tale.

Dav had been paying just enough attention to have a vague idea of the story. “Yeah, I’ve heard things like that from a few people,” he said. “They have a weird approach to war, and most other things too by the sounds of it.”

“So, what were they doing at this research station of yours?” Meldan asked.

“Research,” Dav said, smiling. “They never really told us much about it. Some uber-weapon to use against the Zhodani was all we got out of them. They soon gave us the idea that we shouldn’t ask too many questions. There was the usual…”

Andrish’s door opened and the man made his way over to the galley to speak to Jared. Dav tried not to stare but felt his eyes drawn towards the man, and he was sure he caught Andrish glancing over to him a couple of times. Andrish was psionic and knew that Dav was too, but then that was no surprise; he’d probably been doing his own scans.

“Usual what, Dav?”

Meldan’s voice brought him back to the conversation and he realised he’d stopped in mid-sentence.

“Huh?... oh, the usual guys in white coats, but they never let us anywhere near the interesting stuff. Probably wouldn’t have understood it anyway, I suppose.” Dav paused for a moment. “What do you make of the other passengers?”

“I’ve only really talked to Larissa,” Meldan said, nodding over towards the door next to Dav’s. “She seems alright. The high passengers have hardly been out of their rooms, too good for the likes of us. I was beginning to have my doubts about you,” he added with a grin.

“No fear of that,” Dav said. “I know my place. Listen, I’ve got some stuff I need to get on with. I’ll speak to you again, soon.”

He got up and made his way back to his stateroom. He had some thinking to do.

The discovery about Andrish had left Dav with a dilemma. He didn’t really know the ways that psionics interacted, outside a secret research base at any rate. They’d happily developed his abilities and then cast him aside when he failed to match up to their hopes. Now he was on the outside, liable to be lynched, or worse, if he made a false step.

The safest option would be to ignore Andrish, wait till he got to Extolay and seek out the contact he’d been given. However, there was no telling what Andrish would make of that, and the thought of talking with someone who was in the same boat as him was compelling.

For three days, Dav wrestled with the issue, spending much of his time swapping war stories with Meldan and Larissa, who’d served in the Scouts, or dodging probing questions from Jared. The steward seemed to view it as his mission to have a comprehensive life story of every passenger who boarded his ship. Jared’s inquisitiveness did help in one way; he learned that Andrish was a representative of a large corporation from Deneb seeking to expand into the Marches now that things had quietened down. Dav couldn’t help wondering if there was more to it than that, given what he knew. Throughout, Andrish spent almost all of his time in his stateroom, surfacing only occasionally to get something from the galley or to speak with Jared. Each time, he and Dav shared brief glances and a tension built between them.

By the end of the third day, Dav could stand it no more. He had to talk to the man, if only to reassure Andrish that he was no threat and maybe get the same assurance in return. He waited for a quiet moment when Jared was out of the way and all the passengers were in their rooms. Sitting in the lounge by himself, he ran through a few possibilities for what he might say.

Dav got to his feet and walked towards Andrish’s stateroom. The ‘Do not Disturb’ sign clicked into place on the door, bringing Dav to a standstill just a few paces away.

Damn, he thought to himself. Why now?

He turned to go back to his own room, but then decided he’d do it anyway. Whatever Andrish was doing he couldn’t have properly started yet. He knocked on the door and then waited for a few seconds. There was no response.

Dav knocked a little louder. “Mr. Andrish, can I speak with you, please?” he said. But again there was no response at all. Without consciously deciding to do so, he used his mind to look beyond the door. He began to berate himself for his lack of consideration. What right did he have to invade Andrish’s privacy like this? It was the reason he got into such trouble back on Rech. But then he realised the import of what he had just seen: the room had been empty, Andrish had not been inside.

Good God, he’s a teleporter.

Returning to his own room, Dav considered what this might mean. Teleportation was the rarest and most difficult to master of the psionic gifts. It was the thing they had been most hoping to find at the research station, along with telekinesis. It meant that Andrish was a heavy duty psionic. It also raised the question of just what he was doing. What could he possibly gain from teleporting round a ship in the middle of jump space? Theft was the most likely explanation, or maybe some sort of snooping. Whichever, it made the idea of contacting Andrish dramatically less appealing. How could he trust the man?

Dav considered going to the Captain with what he knew, but quickly thought better of it. What was he going to say? That he used clairvoyance to probe through another passenger’s door and discover Andrish had psionically disappeared? If he was believed he’d be in a heap of trouble, and if he wasn’t they’d assume he had a screw loose. No, whatever he thought, Andrish deserved Dav’s loyalty more than the Captain. The Imperium’s laws and the research station had seen to that.

Jared exited the lift and doubled back on himself, heading towards the cargo area. He hadn’t expected to need these extra supplies on this jump, but the high passengers had an unusual liking for large quantities of fruit juice. Still, at least the ship was almost ready to drop out of jump space at Dinomn so there was a chance of staying inside his budget.

Making his way through two iris valves, he reached the main cargo bay. He paused at the second doorway before heading towards the corner where he kept his stash of supplies. He had never really liked visiting the cargo area when they were in jump space; being alone with the crates allowed the imagination to run wild. He walked that little bit quicker down the aisles as a result. It was stupid, he knew. But not even a decade of experience could quite rid him of his lingering superstition.

He almost missed the open crate down one of the side aisles.

Jared stopped and backed up to get a better look. He hadn’t been mistaken; one of the crates was open with the lid lifted at an angle.

The seal must have come loose, Jared thought, and walked along to the crate to close it up again. As he got close, he caught a glimpse of the contents.

“What the…?”

He didn’t get the chance to finish his sentence as a sharp explosion of pain erupted in his head and everything went black.

Dav flipped through a few screens on the terminal in his stateroom. The ship had dropped out of jump and it wouldn’t do any harm to remind himself of the layout of Dinomn since he might be spending up to a week there.

The ship’s comms system sprang into life.

“Attention please. This is the Captain. Would all passengers please make their way to the lounge. Thank you.”

Odd, Dav thought. He’d never heard of passengers being brought together at this stage of a journey. He left his room and immediately noticed two new faces standing near the lift. Both looked to be in their forties and wore hardened looks. One had a bearing about him that marked him as an officer. Dav noticed that they both had pistols holstered at their sides, something that did not bode well.

Meldan and Larissa were sitting already, and Dav shot a questioning look at Meldan who responded with a shrug. Andrish and the Meggurans emerged from their own staterooms, sporting puzzled expressions that reflected his own feelings.

After allowing a few moments for everybody to settle, one of the men took a step forward.

“I am Captain Sidnar,” he said. “Before I explain anything more, I must ask if any of you have seen Jared in the last four hours or so?”

“We called for him about two hours ago,” Mr. Megguran said after talking briefly to his wife, “but he didn’t respond. It wasn’t urgent and this isn’t a proper liner, so we didn’t try again.”

Sidnar nodded in acknowledgement, ignoring the barbed comment, and looked round the rest of the group.

“Has something happened?” Larissa asked.

“Jared has disappeared,” the Captain replied, to exclamations of disbelief.

Dav shot a glance at Andrish, and found him gazing directly back at him before looking away. He looked calm enough but this was too much of a coincidence.

“We have already conducted a search of the rest of the ship,” Sidnar continued. “We will now search your staterooms before…”

“What?” Mr. Megguran interjected. “You can’t just go through our belongings. We have sensitive goods and…”

“You are mistaken,” Sidnar said with cold ferocity. “Until I know what’s happened to Jared, I don’t give a damn about your sensitivities.” His hand rested on his pistol in readiness. “Josh, search the staterooms.”

The other crewman quickly went from room to room, only needing a few seconds in each to confirm that the steward was not in any of them.

“Nothing,” he said as he came out of the last.

“You haven’t heard the last of this,” Megguran snapped. “What you just did was out of order.”

“You are of course welcome to complain,” the Captain said. “However, you are all confined to your rooms until we dock at Dinomn and the authorities there can deal with this.”

“Captain Sidnar,” Dav said. “Might I have a word with you?”

«Shut the hell up, Geddis! Say a word and I’ll snap your mind like a twig.»

Dav suppressed a shudder as he looked over to Andrish, who still betrayed no emotion on his face, and blocked any further contact. Could he be that powerful?

Sidnar’s hand was firmly around his pistol, tension evident on his face as he looked at Dav with suspicion.

“Wait till the others are in their rooms,” he said, “and keep your distance.”

Perhaps he should back down. If he did nothing then the problem would just go away. His thoughts shocked him and he didn’t like the look of the direction they led. Could he really sink so low in just a few weeks?

After the passengers had departed for their rooms, Sidnar turned to Dav. “Now what did you want to tell me?”

Dav picked his words carefully.

“Andrish may have something to do with this. I have reason to believe he is a psionic with teleportation ability.”

“What? You’re saying Andrish is a Zhodani?”

“I’m not,” Dav replied, “though I suppose he could be.”

“That’s quite a claim to make. You saw him teleport?”

“No. I saw his ‘do not disturb’ sign being turned on just as I was about to knock on his door. There was no reply, so I tried the door and he wasn’t inside.”

“That’s not exactly concrete evidence,” Sidnar replied, rubbing his chin in thought. “Are you sure you couldn’t have missed him coming out? He’d hardly have left his door unlocked if he was up to something like that.”

Sidnar had spotted the flaw in his version of events, but Dav knew he couldn’t give the real account.

“I’m sure he couldn’t have walked out. I know it’s not proof of anything and that’s why I said nothing till now. But Jared’s disappearance changes things.”

“It does indeed,” the Captain said. “Alright, I’ll bear it in mind and I’ll speak to Andrish. Now if you would return to your room, please.”

Dav sat on his bed and heard the lock click into place. The wait seemed interminable as the minutes passed at a crawl. Then it struck Dav that he might be able to work out something of what was going on. Although, he couldn’t detect Andrish’s whereabouts, he should be able to find and recognise Jared… if he was still alive.

Closing his eyes, he reached out mentally, noting each of the nearby minds. He focused on each in turn, hunting for the missing steward. Soon, he found his target. One mind, faint as if unconscious, was Jared’s. It was located in the cargo bay and right next to him was another mind, also virtually still, which he didn’t recognise at all. What the hell was going on?

The door to his stateroom opened again.

“Well,” Sidnar said. “It looks like you’re right. Andrish wasn’t in his room. And I saw him go in and watched Josh lock the door.”

“He’s in the cargo bay,” Dav replied.

“What makes you say that?”

Dav realised that he’d said it too strongly and tried to recover the situation.

“I was behind Andrish when we boarded. He made a point of mentioning a crate of his that was being delivered. He must have something important in there. It’s the obvious place for him to go.”

The Captain nodded thoughtfully.

“That makes sense. It also means he could be armed by now and we know he’s dangerous. I heard that you put a serious piece of weaponry in the locker. You know how to use it?”

“I know which end to hold. We could use Meldan as well…”

In little over a minute he and Meldan had been taken up to the ship’s locker and retrieved their weapons. Dav quickly checked his ACR over and snapped a clip of discarding sabot rounds into place. He wasn’t happy at doing this without any sort of protection, but there wasn’t the time to go and retrieve his cloth armor.

With Meldan in front, they quickly reached the iris valve that led into the cargo bay and took up positions on either side of it. Sidnar and Josh stood a little further back, their autopistols drawn.

Dav mouthed a countdown and opened the valve. He and Meldan, each with their rifles readied, looked into the bay keeping as much cover as they could. An empty aisle stretched ahead, with crates on either side, leading to the iris valve at the opposite side of the bay some ten metres away. Two main aisles, running the length of the cargo hold, branched off at right angles to the left not far from each side. There was no sign of Andrish.

Meldan move forward to the first of the main aisles and signalled the all clear. Dav moved quickly to his shoulder, indicating that he would continue straight on. He moved quietly, stopping a metre or so short of the second main aisle. Although he wouldn’t be able to spot Andrish himself, it seemed like a good time to use his psionic ability to see who was where. This time there was no sign of Jared, but the unfamiliar mind was moving slowly along what must be a parallel aisle a few metres away.

Dav moved right to the corner and glanced round, leading with his ACR. There was still no sign of anybody yet. The sight that greeted him a few seconds later was not what he expected, however.

A figure in a vacc suit came into view from the next aisle, backing round the corner and dragging another, similarly suited, figure. It only took Dav a second to recover from his surprise.

“Hold it, Andrish!” he shouted.

The figure stopped and glanced round at him, emitting a roar of anger.

“Back off Geddis,” the figure replied, “or Jared gets hurt.”

«We both know that’s not Jared. You’re not going to do anything.» He sent the thought direct to Andrish. It was something Dav was not going to say out loud.

Further down the aisle, Meldan came into view, Gauss rifle trained on the vacc suited pair.

“Stand down, now, Andrish,” he called. “Place Jared gently on the deck.”

Glancing at both of them, Andrish lowered the other figure to the floor and stood slowly up again. He raised his arms in surrender and glared angrily at Dav.

And then he wasn’t there anymore.

“He’s teleported again,” Dav shouted. “Everybody check around themselves!”

He wheeled around, scanning the full 360 degrees but there was no sign of his quarry.

“You might want to make sure your pilot’s ok,” he said to Sidnar, “and then we need to search the ship again.”

When he looked back to the fallen figure, Meldan was already kneeling and detaching the helmet. When he pulled it away, it revealed an unconscious, older man, probably in his late fifties.

“Who…?” Meldan asked in shock.

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Dav replied.

The Captain and Josh joined them, uttering their own expletives when they realised that the figure wasn’t their steward.

Dav pondered the situation. How could Jared have been here and then gone a few minutes later? And how could this man have appeared out of nowhere?

“It has to be Andrish’s crate,” he said out loud.

“What does?” Sidnar asked.

“Jared,” Dav replied. “He has to be in Andrish’s crate.”

Dav raced down the aisle to a large crate that stood out as different to the others, noting Andrish’s name on the outside. It was closed but not locked and when Dav pressed the release, the lid rose in slow automation. The crate was heavily padded but there was still a substantial space inside. Lying at the bottom was the unconscious figure of the missing steward with an ugly bruise visible on the side of his head.

Sidnar had reached his side and was looking in.

“Is he alive?”

Dav reached in and sought out a pulse in the steward’s neck, quickly finding a slow, steady beat.

“Yes, thank God,” he said. “Andrish must have drugged him to keep him out this long.”

“I’ll deal with Jared,” Sidnar said. “You and Meldan go with Josh and find out where that damned Zho went. If you see him, take him down, or this could go on forever.”

The three of them combed the ship twice, finding no sign of Andrish. They reported back to the Captain, who had managed to pull Jared from the crate.

“So,” Sidnar said, “he could be anywhere. Teleporting around to avoid us?”

“I doubt it,” Dav replied. “That’s not how it works. Even the best Zhodani can only teleport a few times and we know Andrish did so at least four times in the past few hours. He was in a vacc suit. I reckon he’s probably left the ship.”

“But what’s the point of floating out there in a vacc suit?” Sidnar asked, looking at Dav thoughtfully. “It’s just a recipe for a slow, unpleasant death…”

“Unless somebody is expecting you?” Meldan suggested.

“You’re not saying that Andrish planned this, are you?” Sidnar asked incredulously.

“Why not?” Meldan replied. “Andrish only had time to suit himself up. The other guy must have already had his vacc suit on.”

“Then who the heck is he?” Dav asked. He knelt by the prone figure of the stranger and hunted for identification. He found it quickly enough in the form of a dog tag round the man’s neck. “Good God, he’s a Captain in the Imperial Navy!”

Sidnar’s jaw dropped open. “What…?”

“An Imperial Navy Captain. Karmesh von Shirmarkhan,” Dav said reading the dog tag. “With a name like that he could be a noble.”

He considered the implications of this twist.

“Captain,” he said. “This is still very dangerous. Andrish is probably Zhodani and almost certainly has a ship out there. He might want this Shirmarkhan guy back.”

Sidnar nodded and activated his communicator.

“Anya, have you got any ships on the sensors?”

“Nothing unusual,” a female voice replied. “Just a Free Trader.”

“Will its course bring it anywhere near us?” Sidnar asked.

“Negative,” Anya replied, “though it will intersect with our position from about twenty minutes ago.”

The Captain looked straight at Dav.

“Did you hear all that?” Sidnar asked.

Dav nodded. “That’s no merchant ship.”

“Full acceleration, Anya,” Sidnar ordered. “Contact the Navy and tell them we’ve recovered a kidnapped officer and need immediate assistance to deal with possible pursuit.”

They moved Jared and von Shirmarkhan to the crew’s quarters; neither showed any signs of coming round yet. Then they could do little more than wait and watch. From the acceleration it displayed, the ‘Free Trader’ clearly had a much greater maneuver drive than it should, but the time it took to slow and pick up Andrish made any realistic pursuit impossible. The Empress Catharine was too close to the safety of Dinomn’s starport and its SDBs.

As he strolled down the starport concourse the security officer scanned the crowds, but Dav barely noticed him as he finished his drink.

“Could you use another of those?” Jared asked, rising from his chair.

“It’s alright, you know,” Dav replied. “I can afford the odd round…”

“I know,” Jared said, his face becoming a bit more serious. “It’s just my way of saying thanks. Who knows what Andrish might have done if he’d had more time. I owe you.” With that, he made his way over to the bar.

What a difference a week makes, Dav thought. Maybe he was getting the hang of this at last. He’d used his abilities and done some good. This time he hadn’t got into trouble over it; had even made a friend. A new life on Extolay beckoned and it might not be so bad after all.

The author wishes to extend his thanks to Fritz Brown for his very valuable comments and suggestions.