Chapter Eight

A Sentence of Death


hey brought Captain Shivers into the throne room struggling between two soldiers who tightly gripped the ropes that bound her arms. Another soldier came behind to push her. They forced her across the black-marble tiled floor toward the dais where Ras Dather sat.

He was dressed like an emperor now, in blue military tunic and long red cape with a high, flaring collar. He leaned forward and she saw his small, greedy eyes watching her approach with toad-like interest. She glared back at him with ripe contempt, as she made his soldiers force every step she took. Her eyes, so pale a gray they seemed almost silver when they flashed with hatred, locked with his.

When they at last reached the foot of the dais the soldiers tried to force her to her knees but they could not. Ras Dather snorted with derision at his own men and rose to his feet.

"Back where I come from," he said loudly, "when folks see somebody like you --," he started to tell her.

"I wouldn't worry about where I came from if I were you," she said in a much quieter voice than his -- but one that carried well and made itself heard in every corner of that vast chamber. "I'd worry about where I'm going. It's likely to be somebody like me who sends you there."

Now the soldiers were forced to hold her back so she could not charge him. For a moment it looked like he might laugh, but he did not; she wasn't sure he knew how. He regarded her for a moment and then sat again and leaned back in his throne before saying, "You talk boldly woman, but those are my ropes wound around your arms, and my will you'll kowtow to if you know what's good for yourself."

"You'd better hope they stay wound around my arms, Dather, because if I ever get loose, the hands at the end of these arms will wind themselves around your neck. And you won't break free of them."

She jerked abruptly against the ropes the guards held and one of the soldiers went sprawling face first to the polished black marble floor. She might have gotten to Dather then, but two more guards came up quickly to help throw her sprawling to the tiles. Yet another one pressed the point of a spear against her face and bade her lie still.

"Well, I'll give you that," said Dather, showing no indication of being impressed or moved. "You have grit. And I'm told you have more than grit. You're supposed to be the best pilot in space. Is that true?"

"The only place I'll pilot you to is hell," she said, and the tip of the spear point pricked her cheek to teach her manners. She didn't bother to flinch but she couldn't keep a narrow stream of blood from trickling down her face to the corner of her mouth. She could taste the salt of it on her tongue.

"Enough of this small talk," Dather said and gestured toward a doorway where Masil Durwist stood with a group of soldiers. One of the men signaled to someone outside the room and two soldiers entered, forcing Jillian ahead of them. They walked to the dais where they stopped and stood on one side where Captain Shivers could see but not reach them.

"Aunt Veronica," said the girl. "I'm sorry. I tried to get away, but they caught me."

"We caught her three or four times, actually," Dather said. "It's plain to see she's related to you, all right. But if she tries to get away again, we'll fix it so she can't try any more and you'll have to settle with getting her back alive instead of whole."

For a moment Captain Shivers just lay there. The she said, "What is it you want?"

Dather leaned forward on his throne. "Your unswerving obedience."

"Why?"

"Because I need a pilot of your skills," he said slowly, confident now that he thought he was in control. "In a couple days the Gathering of the Moons will be at its height and at that time I need a pilot who's capable of navigating a ship through all the clutter to a certain point in space. You're going to be that pilot."

"You're crazy."

"That's not very original of you," he said. "Will you do what I tell you to?"

Shivers glanced with narrowed eyes at her frightened niece where she was standing among a group of soldiers. She said, "Probably."

"Probably, huh?" said Dather. He stood up. "Well, probably will have to do, because I'm told by experts who're supposed to know about these things, that you're just the person for that job." He gestured at the soldiers who guarded Jillian. "Get her back to where she came from."

The guards roughly turned the girl around and herded her toward the door. She looked back over her shoulder, her eyes filled with remorse and self-blame. Shivers started to yell encouragement to her but the end of a spear haft jarred the back of her head and pushed her face against the floor.

When Jillian was gone, Dather said, "Now get this one on her feet."

The soldiers roughly lifted Captain Shivers up. Her head swam and her senses were groggy, so she made no effort to resist. But when she was on her feet she shrugged their efforts to support her off, and stood there glaring at Ras Dather.

Dather stepped down from the dais and came closer to her, looking at her intently. "Damn me, but I can see it in your eyes. If you get the chance, you plan on tearing out my throat, don't you?"

"I expect to be in the mood for something a little less civilized than that," she said. "But yeah."

"Well, get over it. Back where I come from, women know their place, and they aren't required to know much else. If you do anything other than you're told to, that niece of yours will die a slow, slow, painful death. Do I make myself clear?"

"If you hurt her --"

You've made that point before, Captain Shivers. Maybe you want to hear her scream?"

"No. You make yourself clear," she said.

"Good. Take her back to her cell."

"Wait a minute," Captain Shivers said. "What about my crew?"

"Those cowards? They deserted you. They ran away. But don't worry about it. They're being hunted down and killed even as we speak. The only two you have to worry about are yourself and your niece."

"You can't just kill --"

"I can and have," he said quietly.

"In two days time," he continued, "the phenomenon of the Gathering of the Moons will be at its height. Almost a thousand objects large enough to be classified as asteroids or moons will occupy the same plane in an area of space only a few thousand miles in diameter. Some of those objects are fairly massive. The number of conflicting gravity fields in that area will be unprecedented, not to mention unpredictable. You're going to fly me to the center of all that."

"Why?"

"Because when they gather like that there will be something else there that doesn't even exist in this universe right now. A planet, I guess you'd call it." He laughed.

With a waving motion of his hand he added, "Get her back to her cell."

As the soldiers pushed her toward the door, Ras Dather called after her. "We'll be leaving the day after tomorrow, so be ready. And behave yourself. You can start now. If you don't give those guards any trouble on your way back to your cell, they have my permission to untie those ropes."

And then he added, "And if you do give them trouble, they have permission to do anything they want to that niece of yours. While you listen to the screams."

The guards pushed her out of the room. Masil Durwist went with them.

The door closed and Dather stood there glaring at it. When he turned to sit back down on his throne, he saw Ping standing across the room.

As usual, she wore black, a close-fitting dress the hem of which came to the floor, emphasizing her slenderness. She was almost as tall as Captain Shivers. Her black hair was streaked with white, her face narrow and set in a grim, spiteful expression. Her eyes were small and dark beneath arching brows. Her eyes were like darts aimed at him.

She had chosen to watch from outside the throne room during his exchange with Captain Shivers. He didn't think that Shivers knew that Ping was still alive, though she would learn, soon enough.

He said, "I almost wish there were a way to do this without Captain Shivers. It scares me to look in that woman's eyes." Or Ping's also, though he didn't say that out loud.

She said, "Don't trust her. She'll pretend to do what you say and stab you in the back when she thinks she can."

"Do you think I don't know that?" Ras Dather said. "We'll keep an eye on her. And we'll keep that niece of hers under our thumb. If Shivers tries anything, she'll pay all right."

"If that fool Durwist had done his job, we'd already be rid of most of her crew of trouble makers. Your finest soldier sent back here on a stretcher because he was hit by a pickle jar," she said, derisively.

"The crewmembers still don't worry me like she does."

"Then you're stupid," she said. She sighed. "Just remember, our deal was they'll all pay," said Ping.

"Oh, they'll pay all right," he agreed.

"For what she and her crew of misfits did to me."

"They'll pay for that," he said, nodding.

"And for what they did to Percy."

He nodded again. "They'll pay for that, too."

"And when she pays," said Ping. "I want to be watching."

"You shall. We both shall."

She closed her eyes. A smile flickered across her narrow face. "But most of all, Ras Dather my love . . . But most of all, when she dies, I want to help kill her."

There was calmness in her voice as she said those words that impressed Ras Dather in a way that he had never been impressed before; or was the word he wanted "chilled"?

She smiled at him. She reached out and lightly touched his face with her slender, long-nailed hand. "But first her crew."

"They fled Samil and we traced them to Praedus," he said. "We're hunting them down, but we have no leads on which way they went after Praedus. But I think you exaggerate the danger they represent. They have run away and hidden themselves --"

"They are returning to Samil without a doubt. If they are not here already, they will be soon," she said.

"What? How do you know that?"

"Oh. I know more than that," she said. Her dark eyes narrowed into slits. "You were a fool to think they would run away. They're not that smart. They went to find help. It seems that an old friend of theirs, a quite brilliant if eccentric scientist was living in Praedus -- hiding out from creditors back home, I believe. They've enlisted his help. They are returning with the intention of rescuing their beloved Captain Shivers and that niece of hers."

"Again. How do you --?"

"Because I did what you didn't have the intelligence to do. I planted a spy among them," she said. "Someone who is not quite the friend they think he is, someone who has been communicating their plans to me, to the extent he knows them. Someone who will know more of their plans very soon, and when he does, shall tell them to me. Then we can set a trap for them and kill them when they try their stupid heroics as they inevitably will."

"A spy? Among that bunch?"

She came into his arms. "Do you imagine it was difficult for me?" "No," he said. "We have a saying back where I came from. A tall, ruthless woman can paint her nails any color she wants. I don't think a thing like that would be hard for you at all."

She came close to him and placed her hand on his shoulder. Her nails were very red.

Chapter Nine

"The Making of Plans"

t was a small tavern even by the standards of this backwater galaxy and it made McGuirk nervous sitting there, a plate of some sort of local stew on the table before him. The tavern keeper, who seemed to be of the same species more or less as the pink, predatory women who ran the convenience store, stood in the back of the room where the cooking was done and glared suspiciously in his direction. There weren't many tables and no other customers but the members of McGuirk's party scattered about the room at three different tables. Grumlit and Grabby sat across the table from McGuirk. Everyone was disguised, more or less, with the same sort of cloak McGuirk and Urgus wore but no one believed the disguises were very effective.

McGuirk tasted a spoonful of stew and made a sour face. Grumlit, on the other hand, was smacking his lips. "I think I'll ask the tavern keeper for his recipe." "It's not the preparation, it's the zoobnabbin ingredients," McGuirk said, laying his spoon aside. He picked up his stogie, which was lying beside his plate. "I think it's some form of local road kill."

"Which brings us to the subject of Ras Dather, by gumption," Grabby said.

"You don't like this?" Grumlit asked McGuirk.

"Not really," said McGuirk. He leaned back in his chair. "What's going on in Samil?"

Grumlit tried another spoonful. "Could use some more salt, I guess."

"Samil or the stew?"

"The stew," said Grumlit. "Nothing simple like salt is gonna help Samil."

"I reckon that's true enough," Grabby said, rubbing his chin with a tentacle tip. "But it might be fun to shake it up by the tail a bit and see how that helps it."

"Opinions," McGuirk said. "Everybody gives me opinions. What I need are facts."

"It's a cruddy city," said Grumlit. "That's a fact."

"It is for sartain," said Grabby. "They got it screwed down tight, martial law and such like. The whole place. But the good news is, we only got to worry about two parts of it. The castle and the spaceport."

"The spaceport because they took Captain Shivers there earlier today," Grumlit added.

McGuirk perked up. "She's aboard the ship already?"

"Uh huh," said Grabby. "It's a pretty new ship, and looks to be outfitted with some new equipment, mebbe even experimental stuff. I guess part of it is they want to familiarize her with the ship's gizmos."

"But Jillian isn't with her?"

"Not a bit," said Grumlit. "They kept her back at the castle -- the fortress where Dather and his fellow idiots have set up their headquarters. I'm told they left Masil Durwist to guard her."

McGuirk scratched his beak. "Captain Shivers won't be so quick to pull anything if Jillian's not with her."

"No sirree," said Grabby. "But I don't like that part about leaving her in the care of that Durwist varmint."

"Oh, me neither," agreed Grumlit. "But I don't see it as too big a problem. We just rescue Jillian as fast as we can and then hightail it for the spaceport."

"Yeah, that's about all we can do, I suppose," McGuirk said. "But it will mean cutting things a bit close, won't it? We take the time to haul her out of the palace and then we rush to the spaceport and hope to get there on time. You seen how many moons there are in the sky, now? We might not make it."

Grumlit nodded. "Grabby and I talked about that. But if the ship's already locked up, I don't see how we could break into it anyway, especially if it's under guard at a spaceport."

"Yeah, well I got a plan about that, too," McGuirk said.

"But there might be a way to prevent their ship from taking off."

"You mean ram it?" Grumlit asked. It surprised McGuirk that he could figure that out.

"You got a better idea? I'll be the only one on the shuttle, and the only one running the risk of injury. If I handle it right, and with Captain Shivers flying their craft, I think we can count on her not being hurt. I just have to hit it far back where I can damage the drive mount and not the environment levels. And do it before their ship takes off, while it's still on the launching cradle. You guys will be on the ground and can board the smashed ship and get the captain out of there. She'll probably have a head start on that part of it. This will happen at a spaceport, so there will be plenty of ships around to steal, if it turns out the Starsnipe is being watched too closely."

"Which reminds me. I did pick up a bit of interesting news that might prove useful," Grumlit said.

"Oh?"

"Yeah. They've decided to move Jillian. There's a secure building on the outskirts of the spaceport district that they sometimes use as a special jail facility. They'll be moving Jillian by convoy to it about an hour before the ship launches."

"Why would they do a thing like that?" McGuirk asked.

"They've been moving them on a regular basis. I guess they figure we can't do two things at the same time, not without splitting our forces."

"Or maybe just to keep us confused," McGuirk said.

"By grannies, I told you he'd make a better spy than cook," Grabby said.

"And I never doubted you," said McGuirk. He looked thoughtful. After a moment, he said, "Do we have any idea about their route?"

"It so happens, I do," Grumlit said, reaching into a pocket and handing McGuirk a folded sheet of paper. "This map should prove handy."

McGuirk took the paper and unfolded it. "Interesting. This map hasn't even been dipped in the crottled greeps. Interesting route, too. Mostly back streets, of course. I wish I knew the lay of the land better."

Grabby was drumming on the table with the tips of five of his tentacles, and picking his teeth with another. "That there swordsdragon pal of yourn might be helpful in that regard," he said thoughtfully. "He has been on this planet a while, ain't he?"

"Yeah," said McGuirk. He looked up over the top of the paper at the cook. "They might have outsmarted themselves in this one. If we can rescue Jillian and then attack the airport, this could work."

"And you?" Grabby said, peering at McGuirk. "And that there risk of injury you was talking about?"

"I can look after myself."

"You ain't no Captain Shivers," Grabby observed.

"I don't look as hot in an Earle K. Bergey Design Lady Space Captain's Uniform, if that's what you mean" McGuirk snarled. "But I can glister well fly a plurpin spaceship. Especially a shuttle boat."

"And if you hurt yourself?" Grabby said.

"I'm expendable."

"No you're not."

It was Urgus. He'd been at another table with Dr. Foots. Now he was standing next to McGuirk and his face was grim and hard. He said, "Don't you die on me."

McGuirk said, "Don't worry about --" "I mean it, First Officer McGuirk, sir. Don't you die on me. Like Thurston did."

"I don't want me any deader than you do, Urgus. So don't worry about it. But the big thing is to save Captain Shivers." McGuirk wanted to change the subject but he couldn't think how. He was almost happy when the tavern door opened and several soldiers walked in.

"Get back to your table," he told Urgus, quietly. His hand reached under the table and closed on the handle of the bat that lay across his knees.

"And us without no pickle jars," Grumlit said.

"Not a problem," McGuirk said. "I'd rather use this bat on their skulls, any day of the millennium."

"You!" shouted the captain of the guards. He was pointing at McGuirk, who half turned in his chair and looked at him.

"Me?" McGuirk said.

These were not Zerwellians, but members of the local army, the palace guard. They wore resplendent uniforms with polished brass helmets and carried both utility guns and long, deadly swords at their sides. The captain stepped forward.

"Sir," said he. "I arrest you in the name of King Ras of Samil."

"Oh? What's the charge?" McGuirk asked lightly.

"Charge?" The captain smiled. "Why, your resemblance to a drawing on a certain wanted poster, that's the charge." He took a quick glance back at the six soldiers who were with him. They chuckled obediently and he returned his attention to McGuirk. "I suggest, Sir, that you submit meekly and save yourself the humiliation of a posthumous arrest."

"Well, I sure wouldn't want a posthumous arrest," McGuirk said.

"Excuse me," said St. John St. George, who was seated at a table in the front corner not far from the door. "But I seem to recall you promised me a nice murder this afternoon, Friend McGuirk. Would that happen to be one of these gentlemen? If so, which one?"

"You know," McGuirk said. "You've been so patient about this matter, St. John, that I'm going to let you take your choice. No, better than that. Choose as many as you like."

"Jest don't forget to share," said Grabby.

"Of course not," said St, George, leaping out of his chair and drawing his sword. "That would be selfish."

"Arrest them all!" shouted the captain. And it was the last thing he said for a while because McGuirk stood up and swung his bat. The brass helmet rang like a brass bell. The guard closest to St. George had his sword halfway unsheathed when the swordsdragon reached him point first, slicing open his nice tunic and streaking the flesh beneath it with blood. His mouth gaped with surprise. But he parried St. George's next attack and moved sideways, drawing him onto the open floor.

The other four guards moved toward McGuirk's table. Grumlit looked down at his plate of stew, said, "Aw, what the hell," and chucked it into the face of one of them. There was no sign of Grabby.

That was because at the start of all this he had reached up for one of the overhead support beams and pulled himself out of his chair. Now he was hidden in the shadows at the ceiling, until he suddenly dropped from the beam into the middle of the crowd of soldiers and each tentacle held a blackjack. He was whirling madly, cracking skulls and ringing helmets. McGuirk, not for the first time, felt he wasn't needed and sat back down to watch.

The guardsman who was sword fighting with St. George had looked competent when the fight began, but now he was only looking for a way out. The dragon was in no mood to give him one. His blade skewered the guardsman's chest and withdrew expertly.

The guardsman who had been hit with the plate of stew was still wiping it from his eyes. Now he could see and he looked around and saw nothing but enemies. He started for the door.

And there stood Grabby, waving several blackjacks. The guardsman halted, not knowing what to do. "This one's mine," said Grumlit, and hit him with a chair from behind. McGuirk stood up, tossing some money onto the table.

"Well, that's that," he said. "Let's go to work."

"Tar-nation!" said Grabby, "but that felt good. Let's get going, boys, we got a starship captain to rescue." He started for the door, then stopped, looking around at McGuirk.

"Uh, have we got a plan yet?"

"Yep," said McGuirk. "Try not to make things any worse than they already are."

Grabby scowled and nodded his head enthusiastically. "Sounds like a good 'un to me," he said.

Chapter Ten

"The setting of Snares"

oc Foots had been ecstatic the first time he saw the shuttle boat from the Starsnipe. He immediately raided the equipment lockers and started building things, giving no comment regarding what he was building. McGuirk didn't care, though he really hoped it was not another better mousetrap. It seemed to be keeping Foots out of trouble, and it certainly kept him out of McGuirk's top feathers. That is until McGuirk began to be afraid the Doc would run out of gizmos from the locker and set his thoughts on tearing apart the boat's engines.

But that didn't happen. What did happen was that Doc Foots worked happily and produced a number of small gadgets of various sizes and configurations. When finally McGuirk asked him if there was any way he could think of to make their task easier, Foots picked up a couple of the gadgets, tossed them to McGuirk and explained how they worked.

There were to be four of them in the rescue, McGuirk, Grabby, St. George and Foots. McGuirk didn't want Urgus involved in the fighting if it could be helped, and someone had to stay at the shuttle with him. That someone was Grumlit, who surprised McGuirk by volunteering. He'd never known Grumlit to volunteer before.

"I know it's your razzledorpin intelligence got us this information," McGuirk told him. "I appreciate you volunteering to stay with the kid."

"Don't sweat it," Grumlit replied. "Somebody's gotta stay with the kid, and I'm a cook, not a fighting man, despite I throw a mean plate of stew. You're better off with Grabby and that new friend of yours, what's-his-sin. And Dr. Foots needs to be along to handle the gadgets, right?"

"Glad you understand," McGuirk said, and turned his attention to his sidearm. Grumlit and Urgus started back for the shuttle. Fifteen minutes later the rescue party took off for the highway.

According to the map, the convoy that was to carry Jillian to her new prison would take a roundabout route using a number of surface streets that passed through out of the way neighborhoods; but would necessarily have to use the highway that skirted Samil for much of their trip. St. George took a few minutes to study the map and then pointed to a stretch of the highway. "There is sufficient cover here for us to spring an ambush of most endearing charm, Friend McGuirk. There are narrow alleys we can use for our escape, should we have the need, and if our enemies bring in reinforcements it will have to be either from the air or via the highway, and either way will put them at a disadvantage if we take to the alleyways. Furthermore, this city is built upon the ruins of an older city and beneath the ground are catacombs which the police, wisely, seldom visit. Those alleyways will provide us with superb access to those catacombs."

"You sure about that? I hate to think about getting trapped in catacombs," McGuirk said.

"Oh, I am very sure," the swordsdragon said. "They will never think a group of off-worlders, even so stirringly resourceful ones such as we are will even know about them, much less know more than they do. But, well, I have not been altogether, how you say, beloved by the authorities during my stay here and have had occasion to learn them thoroughly."

"I always thought you were a dragon with a lot of secrets," McGuirk said. "That sounds like a useful one."

"Wait until you learn some of the other ones," St. George said, airily.

It was ten minutes later that they were positioning themselves for the ambush. "As the whatever sort of bird they have that flies straight on this planet flies," said St. John, "We are very close to the castle they are moving her from." He was scowling. "Let me see the map, again." McGuirk passed it over and said, "You can keep it. We're here and I don't suspect I'll need it again."

"You may be wrong," said St. John. He was marking on the map with a pencil. He handed it back to McGuirk. "That shows you the closest entrance to the catacombs and how to use them to get back to your shuttle -- and if need be, to the spaceport itself."

"What the florb do you mean, 'if need be'?"

"I am beginning to get a small tingling in the back of my nose, Friend McGuirk. Goose of a little blue farm! But the tingling in the nose of a dragon is a thing it is well not to ignore. It is possible I may be wrong, as I was once before in my distant youth; but it is possible I may be right, as well, and the tingling in my nose suggests something I must do." He arranged his hat carefully atop his head.

"You're running out on us?" McGuirk said, astonished.

"Because of something your nose said?"

"I am covering a possibility we have overlooked," he said.

"The plan you have hatched is a good one and does not necessarily call for me, does it?"

"Well, no, but I'd sure be happier with your help."

"The time is too short for explanations," said St. John. "But I will be back either to explain or apologize quite rapidly," he said. "And you will hear from me as soon as I know whether I am right or not. One way or the other!" And with that he spun around and was gone before McGuirk could argue.

But he was right about one thing, there was no time to go after him. It would all be up to McGuirk, Grabby and Dr. Foots, now.

McGuirk could only settle back to wait for the prison van and its convoy. Doc Foots had outfitted everyone with small two-way radios. McGuirk fitted his earpiece into place and checked with Grabby and Dr. Foots.

#

ime wore on and suddenly the convoy appeared, coming out of a side street and turning onto the highway. It consisted of a brown and gray, box-shaped car followed by the prison van, and another car just like the first one but behind the van. McGuirk forgot all about St. John's strange behavior and barked the command to Doc Foots. On the roof of a low building across the street, Foots rose up and hurled a package into the road in the car's path.

It was meant to look like a bomb when it went off, but it was all flash and smoke and noise; they had to think of Jillian who might be in the car, not the van. The lead vehicle skidded to a stop and McGuirk scrambled to his feet and darted forward. He had his ball bat in his right hand and his utility pistol in his left.

McGuirk could see inside the lead car now. Three uniformed soldiers, no sign of Jillian. He hadn't expected any, but it was important to make sure. He signaled Doc with a wave of his bat and headed for the van, skirting around to it, toward the back. Doc hurled a second, smaller bomb that rolled under the car and blew it into the air and over on its side.

McGuirk was behind the van now. He fired his utility pistol at the follow car, and saw the windshield shatter and the driver clutch his arm. The car swerved off to the side. The van was stopped now. McGuirk was facing the door at the back of it and he had a gadget in his hand that Doc Foots assured him would open the lock so he could get to Jillian.

But before he could use the Doc's gadget, the van door opened and he was looking into its interior and there was no sign of Jillian.

But there were about a dozen guards inside who streamed out and pointed their rifles at him.

#

n the palace not half a mile away, Jillian heard the faint sounds of explosions in the distance. "What's that?" she said.

Masil Durwist, who was with her, said, "I suspect it's your friends attacking the convoy that they think is conveying you to your new prison. It means my trap for them has worked."

An hour ago, Durwist had come into the room where they were keeping her, and unlocked and opened the window to let in the air, or so he said. Now she realized it was to let in the sounds. He had set a trap for her friends. And they had fallen into it. . .

"You're wrong," she said. "They'd see through a trap like that and not go close to it."

"Then how do you explain the explosions?"

"A decoy," she said. "While you stand there bragging, they're breaking into this palace to rescue me."

"Indeed? And do you think I should call my soldiers back to protect me?"

"It's a little late for that, don't you think?" said a new voice, behind him.

Masil Durwist whirled. There on the sill of the open window sat a lizard man outlandishly dressed in a red cape, wearing a jaunty hat with a long, purple plume stuck in it. He wore tall boots with turned-down tops. One leg was in the room and the other comfortably propped on the window sill on which he sat, leaning with his back against the frame.

"Where did you --?" began Masil Durwist. Then he thought better of his question and reached for his sword.

"Where did I come from? Flame of a little blue light! From far away among the stars, my so evil and so stupid Masil Durwist. Allow me to introduce myself." He slid out of the window and into the room, doffing his hat. "I am St. John St. George and I have climbed three stories to come in through this window and confront you. And just possibly to skewer your so bloated gullet."

"It will be the last thing you confront," said Masil Durwist and lunged.

It was as if the sword had been in St. George's hand all along, so rapidly did he pull it. Almost effortlessly he flicked aside the blade of the captain of the army of Ras Dather and the Zerwellian syndicate. Masil Durwist pulled back. But he did not run. He leveled his sword and lunged again, and the two of them matched blades. Masil Durwist fought more cautiously now, but with a certain fire, and the swordsdragon was obliged to be cautious.

Even so, Durwist was no match for St. George and suddenly the swordsdragon slashed him across the belly and while Durwist's mouth gaped with astonishment, the dragon passed the length of his blade through the officer's body. He quickly withdrew his steel and let Durwist fall dead to the floor.

Jillian stood there, staring with disbelief,

As he cleaned his sword on a nearby curtain, St. George said, "I take it you are the so lovely young Jillian, whom Friend McGuirk and Friend Grabby have described in so glowing terms, no?"

"No," she said, when she could get her tongue to move. "I mean, yes. I'm Jillian. But who are you and what are you doing here?"

"Why, I am the renowned St. John St. George," said he. "And I am here to rescue you." He finished cleaning his sword and slid it back into its scabbard. "But now . . ." said he, and took a small radio from his pocket.

"McGuirk," he said into the communicator. "I think you are falling into a trap. I went back to the palace and I found the young lady in question there. She is fine and sends her love."

"That's great," she heard McGuirk's voice. "But I'm a little busy at the moment. I've already fallen into that trap you mentioned. Head back to the shuttle on the double and I hope to meet you there."

The swordsdragon put away the small radio and went back to the window, peering back out of it. "They seem not to have kept many reserves to watch over you, my child. But in consideration of haste and caution, I suspect we need to climb back down this wall, rather than stay inside and take the stairs. Do you think you could securely cling to my back while we did so?"

CHAPTER ELEVEN

"A Pool of Blood"

cGuirk shoved the radio into a pocket and yanked out another of Doc Foots' inventions. The soldiers leaped down out of the van and aimed their weapons to fire at him. McGuirk barely activated the gizmo in time. A sergeant was yelling, "Ready, aim, fire!" just like it was a regular firing squad, and actually, thought McGuirk, it had something of that feel to it. He hoped Foots was half the scientist he claimed to be.

The dozen soldiers fired their weapons, and as they fired, their guns short circuited and the energy chambers burst with flashes of light, loud noises, and a lot of heat. The soldiers were yelling in pain, and none of them were thinking of firing at McGuirk right now. McGuirk took the time to swing his bat at the sergeant, the only one who hadn't fired. Then he grabbed for his radio again and yelled, "It's a trap. Let's get out of here."

"Jehosophat!" shouted Grabby. "Didn't you leave me nothin'?" He was standing on top of the van, looking around with a disappointed expression. Then his expression changed suddenly to surprise. "A trap! But how -- Thunderation!"

"That's right," said McGuirk. "And we'd better get back to the shuttle right now!" Grumlit, he thought, had a lot of explaining to do.

He darted into the alleyway and found one of the points St. George had indicated on the map. He found the hidden opening, a hatch build into the side of a building. He left the hatch open for Grabby and the others. There was a ladder beyond and he made his way down it as rapidly as he could.

Oh, god, Urgus was alone with Grumlit.

He had no idea how long it took him to reach the exit St. George had marked as being closest to where they had concealed the shuttle. He came out into an open field and saw the jagged outcrop of rock behind which the ship lay. He ran toward it. The blood pounded in his ears, his breath came in ragged jolts. He crested the hill and saw the shuttle and ran down the hill toward it. He could see St. George and Jillian not far away, running toward the ship as he was. So Jillian was free. So something had worked right.

He reached bottom and Jillian saw him. She ran to him and threw her arms around him. "McGuirk," she said. "I was afraid I'd never see any of you again."

He disentangled himself from her arms. "Not now, honey," he said. "Not now, not yet."

He drew his gun and held it in his right hand, his baseball bat held in the left.

It was dark inside the ship but not so dark he couldn't see Urgus. He lay on the floor in a pool of blood. At first McGuirk thought -- hoped, perhaps -- the kid had been running and slipped in the stuff. It would be just like him. But it was not something McGuirk ever believed. Not really. All along, he knew better. Then he saw the knife -- a large kitchen knife -- sticking out of Urgus's chest and all hope went away and dull pain replaced it. He fell to his knees beside the corpse of his small, young friend and made a small sound that could not have been words because it did not sound like anything he had ever heard before.

It was his fault. He had let Grumlit watch Urgus, hadn't he? It was he, McGuirk, who was responsible for Urgus's death, as much as if he had plunged the knife into his heart with his own hand.

He felt a tentacle on his shoulder and heard Grabby's voice, behind him. "Easy, old Pard, take it easy now. It ain't your fault."

"It's too late for taking things easy, Grabby." There was a cold tone in his voice. "Besides, we don't have a lot of time before Dather's ship lifts off."

"No we don't."

McGuirk got to his feet. "We better get going." "Hold your hosses, Pardner," said Grabby. "Take just a minute there. St. John, Foots and Jillian are waiting outside."

"Well get them aboard," McGuirk snapped.

"Not with him a-lying here," the decapus said. "You don't want Jillian to see him like this."

The thought was somehow startling. But Grabby was right. McGuirk looked down at Urgus and said, "Yes. That's so. But --"

"There's a locker back there we can lay him in. The autobots will clean away the most of the blood quick as a wink and we can let her inside the ship then."

Together they carried Urgus back to the locker Grabby was referring to. It was adjacent to the med locker and designed to hold seriously sick or injured patients in stasis until they could get to medical help. It was also meant to store bodies, if the need arose.

By the time they had Urgus stored, most of the blood was cleaned away by the small, diligent cleaning robots. Grabby started for the exit.

"Hold on," McGuirk said, grabbing him by a tentacle. "I'll fly the four of you to the outskirts of the spaceport on the side the ship's located on. You three get out there and retake the Starsnipe. I'll go on and stop Dather's ship from taking off."

"That could be dangerous," said Grabby.

"Dather's ship will be in a launching cradle. If I aim this shuttlecraft at the rear drive mounts, I can prevent it from taking off without doing any real damage to the forward compartments. I think we can count on Captain Shivers to get away, and probably kill Dather in the process. When she gets back to you folks, she'll have a plan."

"I sure bet she will," agreed Grabby.

"And if Grumlit's not on that ship," McGuirk said, "I want him found. I want him killed. Got that?"

"I got it," said Grabby.

He did not seem happy but he knew better than to argue. He went outside to get the others aboard.

McGuirk sat down in the pilot's chair and waited. And thought.

He had his answer now. The universe wasn't about anything, not anything at all. It just was.

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