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Chapter Four

A Plate of Crottled Greeps

he dark star-studded night. As he walked toward the ship's bridge, McGuirk gazed at the universe through the view screen in the starboard bulkhead of Starsnipe's central corridor and wondered, not for the first time in recent days if it were about anything, anything at all, or just was. It was a strange mood for the mutant. Not for the first time he found himself wondering about the mood itself, if it were about something, something that had a cause or meaning, or if it just were.

Well, that wasn't much of a question, now, was it? He made a decision, or maybe he only acknowledged a decision made days or even months ago. He shrugged and moved on up the passageway toward the ship's bridge, feeling the vibration of the ship's drive through the deck under his talons.

As he neared his destination the soft, warning buzz of the proximity indicators came to his ears.

Captain Shivers was on duty alone on the bridge, her back to McGuirk as he entered. The light was subdued, a sort of space-going twilight that limned the captain's strong, feminine shoulders. She was intent on her piloting, not much concerned with it, so routine a part of the voyage it was, but focused. They were easing into the planet's orbit, passing through its forward Trojan point as they approached the small world, experiencing a certain amount of space clutter, though nothing like what they'd find waiting for them on their actual approach to the planet itself. McGuirk eased himself into the co-pilot's couch to the right of the Captain and watched the view screen ahead of them. The proximity detectors indicated a high amount of clutter with their low, monotonous buzzes, but the ship's bumper shields could handle most of it. Captain Shivers was just enjoying a ride in the country right now.

She said, "You're awfully quiet, McGuirk."

"Yeah," said McGuirk. "Well, I been thinking about that farm I've always said I was buying someday."

"Farm? I thought you were going to buy a brewery, or at least a tavern when you gave up space roaming."

"Yeah, but that doesn't make any sense, does it?" McGuirk said. "If I bought a brewery or tavern, I'd end up consuming more of the goods than the customers would. At least if I owned a farm and grew vegetables, I'd have to sell them. It just seems like better business sense to retire to a farm."

"Now that's a surprise," said the captain. With a toss of her long, blonde hair she glanced at the row of indicator screens above the viewport and busied herself for a moment with minor adjustments. Then she said, "Did something bring all this on?"

McGuirk thought for a moment before answering. "I think I'm going to start looking for that farm as soon as we get back home."

"What?"

"Yeah, captain, I'm tired. Really, really tired. I figure with a place of my own I can settle down, maybe find a nice lady mutant and raise a brood -- "

"Now don't take this the wrong way, McGuirk," the captain said calmly, "But you settle down, get married and raise a family? McGuirk, that's insane."

"Come on, Captain. I'm forty-three years old, give or take some years, and I'm not getting any younger. This morning I found a gray feather --"

"A gray feather? Let me see."

"I plucked it out and flushed it out a disposal tube. You'll have to wait till I find another. Or go outside the ship. But --"

"At least tell me what brought all this on," the captain said.

"Like I said, I'm tired."

"Oh, come on, McGuirk. In a few days --"

"Not this time," he said. "This time I really mean it. Just look at the life we lead. In and out of one scrape after another, earning our living running missions the space cops are afraid to handle themselves, or else we're carrying obnoxious bozos like our current passenger."

"So that's it. Ras Dather. Just hold on, McGuirk. He'll be off our hands in a few hours and you'll never see him -- or this whole fool Galaxy, for that matter -- ever again." She added with feeling, "Neither will I."

"I know, I know, and if it were just him, I'd be in a better mood. But to tell you the truth, I'm not real proud of my record, either. I've been thinking of some of the problems I've caused for this crew. I think you can find yourself a better first officer."

"Where?"

"Back in engineering, for one thing. Thurston can handle the job at least as well as I do. Probably better."

"Thurston's a Smileyfacian. If I put him in charge the rest of the crew'll be on suicide watch inside three days."

"He's a good guy. So he's a little depressing, and he talks a bit too much about entropy." McGuirk shrugged. "He means well. And he's the best starship technician either one of us has ever seen. Besides, who else is there? Urgus? Urgus is still ten years old, the same age he was when you hired him ten years ago. Grabby Haze is learning to fly a ship, but he's still a space marshal and he's always interrupting with those fragnabbin long-winded stories of his. That leaves your niece Jillian and the cook, Grumlit. Jillian is only here on vacation. When school starts up again, she'll be back at Miss Amelia Tidwell's Space Academy for Genteel Young Ladies. And as for Grumlit the cook, he's a cook. Nope, if anyone on this bucket's going to replace me, it pretty much will have to be Thurston."

"This is ridiculous," Captain Shivers said. She leaned back in her chair, keeping her eyes on the controls. "Okay, so you've made some mistakes, but we've survived all of them haven't we? And you're still the best first officer in space -- my first officer -- and I don't need to be breaking in another one. And what would we do without you? What would Urgus do without you?"

"Oh, come on, Captain. What kind of influence am I for the kid? He --"

A buzzer on the control panel buzzed, louder and with a more insistent sound than the proximity warnings. McGuirk said, "Gluffles," and Shivers said, "There he goes again. Better get back there and see what he wants this time."

McGuirk climbed out of his chair. "I hope he wants me to take him for a space swim. I think I'll forget to have him put on a spacesuit."

"He's a paying passenger, McGuirk," she said sternly.

"Yes ma'am."

He moved back through the central passage that ran the length of the ship's personnel environment from the bridge to the cargo hold. He went past the crew cabins and past the galley where he could hear Gumlit moving around and banging pots and pans as he prepared breakfast. Past the technical room where Thurston tuned and nursed the ship's engines, all the time muttering, "Bummer, bummer," to himself. Home sweet home, thought McGuirk. And then he came to the passenger cabins and knocked on Ras Dather's door.

The door came open and there he stood, Ras Dather, his beady eyes glaring beneath his beetle brows, his froggy mouth a rigid, hostile line between knotted clumps of jaw muscle, his square, lopsided head jammed between his jutting shoulders. He was about two heads shorter than McGuirk. His hair was unnaturally dark and wavy side to side, like a wig placed wrong side around on an uneven scalp. In his deep, rasping voice he said, "Back where I come from we got a saying that just because it's green, that don't make it a frog. Took you long enough to hop here."

"And a fine, good morning to you, too, Mr. Dather. What is it you want this time?"

"Same as always. Service," Ras Dather growled. "I got a question for you. How long before we reach Chaseryn?"

"Four long, long hours, twenty-two drawn-out minutes and three and a half brief seconds," McGuirk said. He leaned into the doorway and pointed with a wingtip toward a keypad on the wall. "See that? That connects you to the ship's communications system. You can ask a question into that little thing and someone can give you an answer without the unreasonable delay of their having to walk all the way back to this part of the ship. Furthermore, you can access the ship's computer and it'll give you all that information and much, much more."

"I like to look a man in the bloodshot eye when I ask him a question. That way I can tell if he's telling the truth or not."

"And was I?" McGuirk asked.

"I got my doubts about that half second," Ras Dather growled; and slammed the door of his cabin in McGuirk's face. McGuirk stood there a moment then turned and walked forward.

There was activity now. The ship was waking up. Urgus and Jillian were awake and dressed. He saw them ahead in the passageway, heading toward the bridge. Neither looked back and saw him. He reached the tech room and heard a terrible racket. He opened the door slightly to peer in and saw Thurston, a hammer in his strong right hand, banging on the polarizer of the power webbing. "Bummer, bummer, bummer," said the Smileyfacian, over and over to himself.

McGuirk examined the indicators and said, "I don't see anything wrong with the power webbing, Thurston."

"Me neither," admitted Thurston, giving up and putting the hammer back in its rack on the wall. He peered at the indicator and tapped it lightly with a forefinger. "Even power flow, good input and output, decent levels showing all around. I suspect there's a problem with the telltales."

"It could even be worse," McGuirk said.

Thurston perked up. "Really?"

"Yeah. The engines could finally be in perfect working order."

"Well, now, I really can't believe --"

"And just think about that," McGuirk said. "If everything's in good working order, then we don't need a ship's tech, do we? You could be out of a job."

"Do you really think that's it?" Thurston said. McGuirk heard just the slightest edge of dread in his voice. Or was it hope?

McGuirk scratched himself under the beak and peered around the tech room. He'd been on a ship or two in his time but he had never seen one where the equipment was kept so spic and span, so gleaming bright as it was aboard the Starsnipe, at least since they'd taken Thurston into the crew. He said, "I think it's a distinct possibility."

Thurston was a large yellow disk, his face a slash of a mouth and two small, dark eyes. The face covered the entire yellow disk and he had no other features. His mouth was curved in a perpetual smile. He had slender stick-figure arms and legs attached to the edge of his face. Still smiling -- his only expression, after all, though one he seldom meant -- he slumped down on a bench and repeated, "Do you really think?"

McGuirk exhaled a cloud of smoke that filled the room with acrid fog and said, "Naw. Not on an old tub like the Starsnipe. Sooner or later, something on this old barge will snap, or a piece of crud will get loose in a pipe and foul a valve and chances are, it'll happen at the worse possible time when we need all our power to escape a star that's going nova, or we're being attacked by Captain Cruiser and her pirates, and there you'll be."

"You think so?" Thurston asked.

"I know so. That's how it's been ever since I set my talons on the deck of this tincan, and I don't see any reason for it to change."

"And it'll be all my responsibility to fix it, plus I'll get the blame for it happening in the first place," Thurston said sadly. "Oh, woe is me. Bummer, bummer, toil and trouble."

He got up from the bench so slowly that McGuirk thought he could hear him creaking but that was just his imagination. Nothing creaked in Thurston's engine room. Thurston began working again on his machinery, muttering to himself, but McGuirk thought he detected more vigor in his step.

McGuirk went forward to the galley and glanced in. He saw Jillian and Urgus seated at the table. Grumlit saw him standing in the doorway and said, "What'll it be, McGuirk?"

"You mean there's a choice?"

"Sure. You want your crottled greeps up or over?"

"Then there's creamed chipped crottled greeps on toast," said Jillian.

"Sorry, little lady," Grumlit said. "You just had the last piece of toast. All that's left is up or over."

"I'll have mine over, then," said McGuirk without enthusiasm. He eased himself into the chair next to Urgus, who was happily spooning glop -- that is, crottled greeps -- into his mouth. Meal times were the only part of the day when Urgus was quiet, though that never lasted very long.

Jillian said, "We'll be orbiting Chaseryn in just about four hours, right?"

"That's what I hear," said McGuirk. He reached for a fork as Grumlit put a plate and a cup of coffee in front of him. The stuff on the plate was sort of gray, with a sheen this morning of green in several shades, and steaming hotter than the coffee. It was also pretty runny. The lower area of the plate was filled with a greasy appearing soup that was in no way various shades of anything, but a consistent color that could best be described as swamp-scum gray. It was flecked with something that looked like mosquitoes but probably didn't have that much protein. He put the fork back and picked up a spoon, like Urgus. Never doubt Urgus when it comes to food.

"I saw you go back to wait on our passenger," Grumlit said.

"He wanted to look at my face, that's all," McGuirk said.

"I always said he was a troubled man," Grumlit said. "Seconds anyone?"

"You can give my next helping to our passenger," Jillian said.

"Hey, mine too," McGuirk said. "That's a real good idea."

Urgus held out his plate. "I'd like some more, please, Mr. Grumlit, sir."

"See? Some people appreciate fine culinary art," Grumlit said. He ladled more crottled greeps into Urgus's plate. McGuirk noticed that one of the greeps appeared to still be moving, but Urgus didn't seem to mind. He headed it off with his spoon and shoveled it into his mouth.

"Hey," McGuirk said around a mouthful of greeps. "Anybody seen Grabby this morning?"

"Oh, yeah," Grumlit said. "He dropped in about an hour ago, while I was starting breakfast. Left you this note."

"What note?" McGuirk asked.

"This one," Grumlit said, fumbling for something in an apron pocket. "Well, it was here," he said after a moment, and began patting his other pockets. He looked puzzled, then glanced around. "Oh, wait a minute," he said.

He picked up a long spoon and poked it into the pot of crottled greeps. "Good thing it's floating on top," he said. "Otherwise, I would never have known it was there and I would have served it to somebody."

"Probably Urgus," McGuirk said.

Urgus looked up from his plate. "Is there enough for another helping?" he asked.

"Sure thing, kid. With you in a bit."

He held the spoon out to McGuirk. A piece of soggy paper was dangling from the end of it. McGuirk took it gingerly in his wingtip and peeled it off the utensil.

He examined it carefully. "There's nothing on it."

"There's not?" Grumlit said, peering at the note. "Well, I'll be broiled. I hope Grabby used a vegetable based ink."

"Yeah, that would sure help the flavor," snarled McGuirk. "But how the parflegrap am I supposed to know what the message said?"

"Well, you could ask Grabby," said Grumlit.

"Oh," said McGuirk.

"I saw him in the ship's library," said Jillian. "I had to stop in there to check one of the star almanacs." She was passing time this vacation by teaching herself third level astrogation. "I wanted to see if Achenar -- "

"We're not in that galaxy at the moment," McGuirk said. "So that likely doesn't have a lot to do with the point you're trying to make. Are you trying to tell me Grabby's probably still there?"

"Yes, I am," she said. She sniffed at him. He thought the way her nose wrinkled when she sniffed at him was cute, but he had sworn to himself never to tell her, because it would either give her the big head or make her think he was a softy.

"Fine. Then I'll go ask him what the note said."

Grumlit stared at McGuirk's plate as the mutant pushed his chair back from the table. "Hey, you ain't finished your crottled greeps," he said.

"Give the leftovers to the dog," McGuirk said.

"There's no dog on this ship," Grumlit pointed out.

"Then give it to Ras Dather or that creepy sidekick of his."

Chapter Five

A Can of Wormholes

h, Buffaler gals won't you come out tonight, won't you come out tonight, won't you come out -- Consarn it, McGuirk! Why don't you come in!"

McGuirk was peering in the doorway of the library. He saw Grabby sitting at a computer. Playing in the background was a rendition of the song he'd been singing, recorded by the Clones of the Pioneers back in '07.

Grabby Haze said, "I said get in here, McGuirk. Ya can join me in a hand or two of solitaire."

McGuirk came in, closing the hatch behind him. "You're playing cards? I thought you were in here doing research or something valuable like that."

"The beauty of having ten bodacious tentacles," said the space marshal. "It makes a body a natural-born multi-tasker, that's what it does. Which reminds me of a story --"

"We're almost to Chaseryn. Save the story for a rainy day." McGuirk eased himself into the chair next to Grabby.

"Hold on thar, ya green-feathered varmint. Chaseryn's a desert world, ain't it?"

"Relax. You're up to the challenge." McGuirk peered at the screen. All he could see was the seal of the Space Marshals: a five pointed tin star and an autographed photo of Hoot Gibson in its center. "So, what are you doing in the ship's library of all places. Watching George O'Brien in The Rainbow Trail, or the Three Mesquiteers in Hit the Saddle?"

"If I was watching any kind of picture show, which I'm not," Grabby replied, essaying dignity, "It would be Hit the Saddle. You just wait, that Rita Cansino is gonna be a star."

"How can you prefer her to Cecilia Parker?" McGuirk said, aghast.

"I'm a leg man, myself," Grabby said. "Not that neither one of 'em shows much leg wearing them authentic pioneer gingham muumuus." He made a grumbling sound, possibly to indicate he was changing the subject, then said, "As you know from my note --"

"Which Grumlit dropped in the crottled greeps."

"Oh? Good thing I used a vegetable-based ink. So, I reckon you don't know nothing," said the space marshal. "Well, nothing new there. But pay attention, McGuirk, because I'm about to give you a chance to change all that."

"Educate away," McGuirk said, lightly.

"Now don't you go getting mellow on me, you dagnabbed mutated green-feathered varmint. I been investigating this here Ras Dather ranny and I'm of the opinion there's a mite more to him than meets the eye."

"I see him as being somewhat less than meets the eye," McGuirk said.

"Good thing I'm on the job, then," Grabby said, turning to the computer and calling up his research. "That weasely little sidekick of his, for example."

"Weasel number two," McGuirk said, just to hear the sound of it.

"His real name is Masil Durwist," said Grabby. "And he's connected."

"To what?"

"To a group called the Zarwellian Syndicate."

"Never heard of them."

"I said he was connected. They ain't. That don't mean I trust 'em none, though." Grabby turned his head somewhat and let loose with a stream of tobacco juice that just missed the tip of McGuirk's beak and pinged loudly into the brass spittoon in the corner. When Grabby was aboard, Captain Shivers insisted that there be a spittoon in every compartment of the ship. "Them Zarwellian's have been around a few decades, mostly doing penny-ante stuff, purse snatching, stealing kids' lunch money and the like."

"Stealing lunch money? That's a crime syndicate?"

"Well, most of them Zarwellians is short and blend in good on a playground."

"I bet."

"Yeah, well the cops didn't take 'em that serious, neither. Most of them as managed to get themselves caught never got much of a sentence. Kind of hard to stop a serious group of criminals by slapping their hands with a ruler."

"Okay, so nobody took them serious," McGuirk said. "So what? Did they move into something bigger?"

"Nope," said Grabby. "They disappeared."

McGuirk removed the stogie from his beak, blew a thoughtfully acrid cloud of smoke and leaned back in his chair. "Maybe they realized they weren't cut out for this crime syndicate thing."

"Mebbe," Grabby said.

It had been minutes since Grabby had hurled an insult at McGuirk, and even longer than that since he'd been reminded of a story. Small cold chills were starting to run up and down McGuirk's spine.

"You aren't planning on another chorus of 'Buffalo Gals,' by any chance, are you?" McGuirk asked,

"Sure ain't," said Grabby.

"Then why not tell me just what we're looking at here?"

"Mebbe not a lot," the decapus admitted. "They was operating most on a couple of backwater planets out around Rigel. Then, about five standard years ago they up and stopped operating."

"Just like that?"

"Just like. Everybody sort of figured they'd just broken up, like you said. Then about two or three years ago some rumors sprung up that they was seen operating on a new planet."

"Which planet?"

"Chaseryn," said Grabby.

The screen now showed a picture of Masil Durwist -- two pictures, actually, one front, one profile. There was some information about him, a description, and a record that showed petty offences only. He didn't seem wanted at the moment.

"There's not a lot here, Grabby."

"Goldarn it," snapped the marshal. "Thar weren't a lot when they started investigatin' Adolf Hitler."

"There was that war thing," McGuirk said.

"Heck, that only involved one world, didn't it?" He leaned closer to the computer read-out. After a moment he said, "What do you know about this thousand moon sityation?"

"Just that it's a pain in the tail-feathers to fly a spaceship through."

"Well, that's why we got Captain Shivers, I reckon. 'Cause I bet she knows better than that. Most of the time there's no real problem approaching Chaseryn at all. Sure, there's all them moons but most of them are meteors or asteroids, pulled in by the planet's gravity. The orbits are mostly eccentric, and most of the time only a handful are anywhere near the planet itself or, for that matter, near Trorphes, the planet's largest natural moon."

"Trorphes," McGuirk said. "Seem to recall it's a pretty good sized piece of real estate, just about seven eighths the mass of the Earth's moon."

"That's right," said Grabby. "And I'm proud you could remember about it, you being the co-pilot and all. Most of it's rock and pumice and such like aggravations. No heavy minerals been discovered there, and as you might suspect, it has no atmosphere or water."

"Sounds useless."

"That's pretty much the general consensus," Grabby said. "But then there's the gathering."

"What gathering?"

"Of all the moons," snapped Grabby. "Well, most of them. Seems that once every so often -- about twelve hundred years -- most of the moons that orbit Chaseryn all come close to the planet at the same time. That's what's happening right now."

"It's been twelve hundred years since they were all this close?"

"It will have been in about another month."

"Well, then," McGuirk said, thoughtfully. "Why couldn't we have waited six weeks and avoided all this clutter?"

"That could just be on account of Ras Dather's about the most impatient scoundrel, I ever heered of," Grabby said.

"True."

"But I don't think so."

McGuirk let an eyebrow rise quizzically. Grabby whammed away at the keypad some more and called up another report.

"Seems there's a lot of legends about what was going on twelve hundred years ago, the last time all these moons and pieces of space rock got together and orbited around Chaseryn and Trorphes. Some of it's pretty weird."

"How weird?"

"They's stories about space opening up and something coming through," Grabby said.

McGuirk scowled. "Coming through? Coming through space? Just what opened up, a wormhole? A hyperspace portal? What? For that matter, what came through?"

"Nobody appears to know," Grabby said. "And that, believe it or not, includes me."

McGuirk rubbed his beak thoughtfully a moment, then said, "I don't get what all this has to do with your suspicions about Ras Dather."

"Mebbe nothing," Grabby admitted. "But it seems kind of suspicious, don't it that Dather would have us bring the Starsnipe here at this exact time?"

"You just said he was impatient."

"Well, that's what makes all this suspicions on my part and not knowledge," the old space marshal admitted. "Still --"

"Maybe we should take this to Captain Shivers and see what she thinks," said McGuirk.

"Not just yet. After all, McGuirk, it's you and me is the deep thinkers on this ship. Ain't we the ones who usually figure out what's going on? Captain Shivers just sort of shows up after the fact to rescue us."

McGuirk had less faith in that statement than Grabby appeared to, but he let the issue slide. He gazed at the screen a moment. Nothing written there seemed the least bit conclusive, that was sure. If they went to the captain they'd have only suspicions. Ras Dather inspired suspicion, and certainly he was up to something -- he seemed the sort who was always up to something. But they didn't really have anything to take the captain, did they? And she was pretty busy navigating the ship through this swarm of space junk.

"Anyone ever get a good look at whatever it is Dather has back in the main hold?" Grabby asked.

"What?"

"That there contraption he stowed aboard the ship when he chartered it, the cargo we're deliverin' to his main diggings on Chaseryn."

"I know what you're talking about," McGuirk admitted. "It just seemed like a sudden change of subject. It's all containerized. They have two containers, each about the size of a shuttle craft. Are you thinking that whatever it is, it's somehow connected to whatever question it is we're discussing, whatever that is?"

"I ain't got the slightest idea," said Grabby. "On account of I ain't seen the varmint in question."

"Neither have I," said McGuirk.

"Then mebbe that's what we ought to do afore we goes to the captain with all this," said the space marshal.

"Now you talk about something that's easier said than done," McGuirk said.

"It's back there in the ship's cargo hold, ain't it?"

"Yeah, but it's packed up in a metal container the size of Ras Dather's ego -- well, almost -- and we don't have any idea how to open it up. Plus it's under guard."

"That tells you something right there," Grabby said.

"Yes it does. But it's nothing specific. And besides, Captain Shivers was too smart to let armed guards on board. They're just there for show. And we're still just running around in circles."

"You got a better direction?"

"Yeah. Forward to the bridge to talk to Captain Shivers."

Grabby hopped out of his chair and headed toward the door. "There ain't no fun in that," he said.

"Not that much risk, either," said McGuirk. "I'm not with you on this one, Grabby."

Grabby reached the door slid through it and headed off toward the hold. McGuirk puffed savagely on his stogie, creating dark, green-tinted clouds that hung a moment above his head before dissipating. "I'm not going with you, Grabby," he called.

There was no reply.

"Fragnabbit," McGuirk growled. He leaped to his feet and shot off after the space marshal. Nobody on this ship ever believed him.

Chapter Six

The Vessel with the Pestle

ow, Grabby had his faults. He was loud, he was stubborn, he told too many stories, and he could lose a forest faster by tree watching than anyone else McGuirk was aware of. But he knew how to sneak. He was so good at sneaking that sometimes McGuirk almost believed his stories about scouting for Custer, Phil Sheridan and Arthur Godfrey, and stalking notorious outlaws like the Daltons, the James Boys and the Clintons in their native wilds. As McGuirk moved back toward the cargo hold, there was no sign of the space marshal ahead of him.

Before he reached the entrance to the hold, McGuirk turned down a side corridor to a ladder set into the bulkhead and scampered up. This led to a round hatch that put him into an access passage that opened onto a gallery that circled the upper area of the hold. It was an ideal place for a sneak like Grabby, with shadows to hide in and a good view of the hold itself. It also had great acoustics. You could whisper and not be heard below, but almost anything said in a normal tone of voice at floor level could be heard on that gallery. You could sneak all you wanted to here and not be sneaked up on.

"Took you long enough to get here," said Grabby.

McGuirk jumped like he was shot. To tell the truth he wasn't sure he hadn't been.

"Hold the noise down," Grabby said. "There's people down there."

McGuirk glared at the shadows. "You ought to know better than to do that," he snarled. "You just gave me some more gray feathers."

"Oh? Let me see."

"Keep your plagdrammin eyeballs to yourself. You coming out of those shadows or not?"

"Ain't in 'em," said Grabby. "Turn around."

McGuirk turned. "Oh."

Grabby was leaning casually on the railing behind him, peering down at whoever it was down in the hold.

"Do you think the guards heard me?"

"No guards down there. Just Masil Durwist and Ras Dather."

"What are they doing?"

"They're leaving, now. Reckon they'll go to their cabins and hunker down for the landing on Chaseryn."

"I don't suppose they were helpful enough to say anything about what's in that container?"

"They said enough," Grabby said. "I heard them mention Ping the Perciless and the universe destroyer. Of course, I don't think it's Ping that's in the container, mainly cause she's dead. But I think it's one of them there metaphorical doodads like a smoking knife or a pizen pellet and we might just be about to swaller it if we ain't careful. I don't know about you McGuirk but I sure don't have no hankering to swallow no smoking knife. So mebbe now we ought to go see Cap'n Shivers after all."

"Yeah," agreed McGuirk. "We might still have time to jettison that thing before we land."

"Better even if we just toss it out the airlock and turn around and go back home," Grabby said. "It's just asking for trouble to land on this dadblasted slagheap of a planet, anyhow."

Somewhere a warning bell began to ring.

"Too late," said McGuirk. "That's the approach signal."

"Jee-hosephat!" growled Grabby. "What'll we do now?"

"I got no choice," McGuirk said. "I'm the co-pilot remember? I gotta get to the control room."

"You saying I do have a choice?" Grabby said.

"Yep. You can either strap yourself into an accelerator couch, or be smeared like jelly over the bulkheads."

McGuirk went forward to the bridge. The captain was busy at the controls and as McGuirk opened his beak to cough up his and Grabby's suspicions, the captain interrupted him. "Buckle up before you get hurt, McGuirk. It just got tricky."

The deck shifted under his talons and he barely managed to plant his tail feathers without falling. In the screens he could see more space rocks all at once than he'd seen collectively on his last three voyages. The captain's hands rested lightly on the controls and she was responding to the situation with a feathery touch that nevertheless slid the ship first this way, then that, deftly avoiding collision time and again.

McGuirk was an old hand at flying in dangerous situations. In a case like this he could take a single glance at the screens and know exactly what to do and he did it. He leaned back in his couch, took his wingtips off the controls and left everything to Captain Shivers. He kept his beak clamped tightly on the stogie and resolved not to tell the captain what he and Grabby suspected until she was through piloting the ship through this mess.

There would be time then and plenty of it.

Captain Shivers was already brought the Starsnipe around to a path that would glide it into the forward orbit of Chaseryn where the planet itself would shield it from the main mass of the moons that swirled and heaved closer and closer. One huge rock loomed up and McGuirk almost yanked at the control bar to carry them from its path. It necessitated a certain strength of will but he kept himself from making that mistake. The Captain knew what she was doing. The moons might come close but none of them slammed into the old freighter's hull. She slid the ship deftly past the space boulder and angled down toward the top of Chaseryn's sky.

And hit the air and fell, fell, fell as the air grew heavier and sang against the shape and the metal of the ship until it gathered beneath the suddenly outspread wings and carried them down toward the spaceport of Samil.

Just a piece of cake; and McGuirk sat there with his tailfeathers unruffled and the landing assured and soft beneath them while they settled to the ground.

Then while the ship cycled down to groundmode McGuirk said, "Captain hold on a minute," and quickly told her about his and Grabby's suspicions.

"Are you sure?" she asked him when he was through.

"Of course not. If I were I would have taken the time to toss Dather through the airlock before coming here to help you land."

"I wish you'd said something before we landed," she said.

"You were busy."

"I know. I was just wishing." She got to her feet. "Well, the first thing we ought to do is find out how soon he plans to unload that cargo. Then -- "

"Back where I come from," came a voice from the doorway. "They got a saying. If you're going to peel bark off a tree, you might as well do it before the moss grows."

Dather and Durwist stood there holding guns. Captain Shivers barely moved but Dather said, "Don't bother setting off any alarms. I have your whole crew under guard."

"We haven't taken anyone on board yet from groundside," said the captain. She spoke calmly but her teeth were clenched and McGuirk knew that sign, sure enough.

"We had four armed guards hiding in the second container," said Durwist. "We let them out as soon as we landed."

"In that case," said Captain Shivers, "I don't see much I can do. Get your cargo and yourselves off my ship."

"We intend to," Dather said. "But the truth is, there's a little more on this ship than just the cargo that we need."

"If you're talking about the Starsnipe ," began the captain.

"This junker?" Dather said. "Growing up I used to hear the old folks call a thing like this a piece of rust waiting to happen. Nope, I got a spaceship, state of the art A number 1, top of the line as they say. No ma'am, Captain Shivers. I don't need a ship. I need a first rate pilot. You."

"Me? You're out of that lopsided skull of yours if you think I'm going to work for you."

"I never thought you were likely to cooperate," Dather said. "I was just telling Masil here, 'Masil,' I said, 'There's nothing more stubborn than a mangey mule unless it's a good looking woman tough enough to wear an Earle K. Bergey Design Lady Space Captain's Uniform.' So we brought a persuader."

He gestured toward the passageway and one of his armed guards who had been out of sight up until then, came into view. He was holding Jillian. He had her by the throat. She had both hands pulling on his wrist but she wasn't causing his grip to loosen. In his other hand he held a utility blaster.

Another armed guard pushed around him and came into the control room. He stood to one side, holding a gun on Shivers and McGuirk neither of whom was armed.

"At least have your goon take his hand off her throat," Shivers said.

"That's no problem," Dather said. "Stop choking the little lady, now, please."

The guard let go of Jillian. She gasped and coughed and clutched her throat and started to speak but Captain Shivers cut in.

"It's not your fault, sweetie. But now that it's over and Dather has my word, why don't you head down to the wardroom and wait with the others?"

She started off but Dather grabbed her arm and kept her there. "Not so fast," he said. "I think we'll just hang on to her until we're a bit more convinced of your cooperation."

He started off with her and Captain Shivers started toward him. The guard who was closest to her slammed his gun against her head and she fell forward. Dather looked down at her inert form and said, "Well that pretty much guarantees her cooperation for now. But we'll hang on to the little lady anyhow."

Durwist scooped the captain up and carried her into the passageway.

Dather looked at McGuirk as if noticing him for the first time. "His eyes are always bloodshot, Ralph," he said to the guard. "Kill him."

Dragging Jillian, he left.

Ralph lifted the gun and, stepping forward, pointed it at McGuirk. His mistake was in stepping forward. With asonishing speed in so lethargic seeming a mutant, McGuirk slapped the barrel of the gun to one side. It went off, the blast splashing against the bulkhead. McGuirk drove forward and low, pushing his wingtip into Ralph's midriff with considerable force. The gun fell to the deck and McGuirk scooped it up. He darted for the door but Ralph wasn't finished. The guard tackled McGuirk and they rolled over and over, struggling for the gun. McGuirk thought he was getting the worst of it when the gun went off and tore a hole through Ralph's chest. That took more than just the fight out of him.

McGuirk got to his feet and pistoned his legs toward the corridor. He saw Masil Durwist with the still-dazed Captain Shivers over his shoulder. Behind him, Ras Dather dragged a protesting Jillian. He couldn't get a clear shot at either Dather or Durwist. That was all right. He was just as willing to beat their brains out with the butt of the raygun as he was to shoot them.

Then Durwist reached the forward hatchway and darted through. They had had enough foresight to release the emergency ramp and he slid down it, followed by Dather with Jillian. McGuirk reached the hatch and was about to dive through but Durwist had dropped the captain and was pointing his gun at the hatch. McGuirk sprang back just in time to avoid the blast.

When he looked back Durwist was holding the captain in front of him. He tried to aim his gun for a shot at McGuirk but she had recovered consciousness, and her struggling made it impossible for him to fire. In turn, McGuirk gauged his chances of hitting Durwist with Captain Shivers in front of him and didn't like them.

"McGuirk!" called Captain Shivers. "Get out of here before they call in reinforcements. Get out of here and find Dr. Foots! He's somewhere on "

Then Durwist hit her again and she went limp in his arms. Dather had already dragged Jillian over to the car and was pushing her into it. Durwist forgot about McGuirk and scooped Shivers up and carried her to the car as fast as he could.

Two robed guards, smaller than Ralph, were running from the back of the ship where a crane had already lowered the cargo container onto a truck. The small guards were armed with long, ugly spears. McGuirk slid down the escape ramp, reaching the bottom as the car sped away.

The guards were waving their spears. Suddenly Thurston jumped down out of one of the emergency airlocks his thin, powerful legs bending to absorb the impact as he landed on the concrete. He grabbed the spear of the guard who was in back and twirled it around him. The guard hung on and shrieked and let go and went flying, then rolled across the ground. McGuirk lifted his gun to shoot the other guard but the little so and so veered in front of Thurston costing McGuirk a clear shot. There was no leeway, no room for error, with a blaster.

Thurston turned toward the guard and that was when McGuirk realized Thurston hadn't known there were two of them.

Before the Smileyfacian could defend himself, the guard drove his spear through him. Thurston squawked and fell back, and the spear shaft snapped with a loud crack under his weight. With Thurston lying on the ground McGuirk had a clear shot at the guard and he took it not caring whether the creep knew what hit him or not. The guard caught the full blast and his upper half shriveled to a cinder but McGuirk barely noticed. He ran past him to where his crewmate lay.

Thurston looked as he always looked. Big and round and flat with huge, black round eyes and a thin, perpetually smiling mouth, with stick-figure arms and legs. As he always looked except for one thing. The wound. The gaping wound that tore through his face and spilled his blood on the spaceport field.

With his smiling face and happy eyes Thurston looked up at McGuirk and said, "You know, this is the first time I ever went into a fight confident I could win it."

And then he died.

McGuirk stared down at him and there was a rushing sound like a flood in his ears, the beating of his own heart, the pounding of his blood. Somewhere far away he heard Urgus calling the name, "Thurston," over and over, and in that small moment, on that small planet, in that pathetic galaxy that only had five lousy stars -- in that moment, McGuirk understood the question he had been trying to find and the answer to it. He knew his purpose. In that moment everything about Nadir McGuirk changed.

Chapter Seven

The Poison in the Pellet


angs of a large green demon," said St. George furiously. "Had you known this poor fellow Thurston long?"

"We'd been crewmates a few years," McGuirk said heavily, giving a nod. "When I realized he was dead, I don't care what you think of me for admitting it, I wanted to just bawl. I would have, too, if the kid hadn't needed to be dragged away from Thurston's side just then." He hesitated a moment, his eyes staring into the past, then said, "There were reinforcements on the way. Dather and Durwist had made their getaway with the Captain and Jillian by then and I wanted to find Foots and then organize some kind of rescue. I went back on board the Starsnipe, dug my blaster and this baseball bat out of my locker and Urgus and I took off."

Foots shook his head. "I can't believe Thurston's gone. I always considered him the one member of your gang that made sense."

"You are wrong," St. George assured McGuirk, "to worry about what I think of you, my friend. It is right and fitting to weep for a fallen comrade, even more so to weep for a fallen friend. I see I misjudged you. I hope you do not think poorly of me but I find that I am no longer desirous of butchering you. Not now that I know the situation, no? I am sorry if it disappoints you, but our duel is off."

McGuirk grinned. There are, in the seven galaxies, few things more evil looking than the grin of a creature that clamps a black and ancient stogie in its beak. But there was warmth in the grin nonetheless. McGuirk said, "Speaking of things I hope are not taken wrongly, you do realize that sooner or later I was going to run away from that duel, no matter how big a coward I had to be to do it?"

"But of course," said the swordsdragon, with a snap of his fingers. "In my mind I have already rehearsed the great bluster with which I would react to this affront. And I would have searched and searched for an appropriate length of while in all the wrong places, you scoundrel." St. George smiled also and his dragon's tooth smile was nowhere near evil in appearance.

They were camped in a small rock-sheltered clearing on a low ridge overlooking the southward road that led back to Samil. The fire over which they had cooked their meager supper -- canned sausages thoughtfully purchased by St. George from the convenience store they had lately helped to wreck, and McGuirk's coffee, brought from the stores of the Starsnipe -- was showing signs of dying out. McGuirk, St. George and Foots were sitting close by the fire. Urgus, wrapped in blankets, slept the sound sleep of the innocent nearby.

"The sheer bunny rabbit warmth of all this emotion," said Dr. Foots, "is about to make me warmly regurgitate my share of that pathetic meal we just had. Have you given any thought to what we do next, McGuirk?"

McGuirk scowled at the low flames of the fire. "It's not exactly rocket science. We meet up with Grabby and Gumlit, find out what's happened to Captain Shivers and Jillian, rescue them and recover the Starsnipe."

"Well that sounds simple," said Foots. "So why did Captain Shivers want me along?"

"I didn't have much opportunity to discuss that point with the captain," McGuirk said. "But I'm guessing it has to do with Ping and that universe gobbler of hers."

"Ah yes, this Ping one," said St. George. "Never have I heard of her."

"She'll hold that against you, too," snarled Foots. "Not every scientific genius is as modest as I am. Nor as sane, either."

McGuirk took the stogie from his beak. "Believe it or not, I have to agree with you on that, Doc. At least in her case. She's as jumpy as a Jack Russell Terrier that's just been donated to a flea circus. And single-minded about it, too. She and her late husband Percy invented the universe gobblers a few years ago and were using them to extort tribute from several star systems. The space marshals sent Grabby and Captain Shivers to stop them. During the confrontation the captain had to kill Percy. Ping's been after her ever since. She's resurrected the gobblers once before, on a much grander scale; but Captain Shivers whipped up a wormhole to take the things into another part of the universe where they'd be harmless. As it happened, Ping fell into the wormhole along with the gobbler. We sort of felt we were rid of her."

"Looks like you were wrong," Foots said. "You know," he added thoughtfully, "I was never completely convinced that Percy Pontifex was smart enough to invent something like that. The truth is I always thought of him as a blithering idiot. How else do you account for the fact he was married to her?"

"I've heard Cap Shivers comment on the same thing," McGuirk said. "Not in such diplomatic terms, of course."

"You say that Grabby overheard them talking about Ping and what they called a 'universe destroyer.' Did he say he'd overheard any details?"

"None," McGuirk said. He puffed out a heavy cloud of stogie fumes.

"Would you mind not blowing tobacco smoke at me?" Foots snarled.

"Sorry," McGuirk said. He shifted slightly so that Foots wouldn't suffer the smoke directly. "But for the record, it's not tobacco."

"Yeah, well that might be even worse," Foots said.

"Not that either," McGuirk said.

"He is telling the truth," the swordsdragon said. "You will have noticed my so magnificent snout, have you not? I have taken the liberty of inhaling a few of the fumes expelled from that stogie of his -- "

"Diplomatically put," said Foots. "I don't see how you could have avoided it."

" -- And I assure you I have detected only the most wholesome and medicinally helpful of herbs."

"Is that a fact?" Foots said.

St. John laid a finger beside his nose like a saurian Santa about to ascend a chimney. "The olfactory organs of a dragon are never wrong," he said.

"I'll keep that in mind," said Foots thoughtfully. "McGuirk. Just where in blazes is Grabby, anyway?"

"I left him in Samil to keep an eye on things. He's a good spy and he and Grumlit'll be a lot less conspicuous than I would. We're to be back there by tomorrow night and meet them."

"Tomorrow night? Can we get back there in time?" Foots asked.

"I think it's likely. We came here in the Starsnipe's shuttle. It's hidden about a two hour walk south of here. Let's get some sleep," McGuirk added. "I'll take the first watch."

"Wake me for the third watch," Foots said. " I do my best thinking in the hours before dawn. This universe gobbler thing's going to take some thinking, too." He stood up and stretched. "Blast! Seems like I haven't done any really good thinking since I got to this fool planet. I'm looking forward to it."

End of part 2 (of 3)

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