verett Towns left the Homage docking area of the spaceport, walking away without purpose. He'd been on planet for five hours, most of it spent in front of his computer screen, on board, linked now to the terra systems upon landing, but hadn't found any expensive freight to haul, which was their specialty. He was tired of looking and was headed into town for a little rest and relaxation. He'd been in space for over a month and he needed something of a holiday.

The ship was secure and Sheila, his synthetic, was watching out for it. She never got tired or needed R&R, or ever said, No, to him, thank goodness. He'd go nuts on longer hauls without that robot.

Covering his ears as another ship blasted off into the stars, out of the cup shaped launch hole, he casually watched it disappear up into the black sky, between the two moons of Celibus and Hethos, both in full moon cycle, orbiting this planet Kion. It was a lucrative place, a busy place, and Everett knew he would find work within a week, so he decided to treat himself for a few days. Profits had been good this last quarter and he had plenty in the banking lines, almost enough to retire, if he wanted, which he didn't. With the advent of nano-tech and genetic perfectionism, death or growing old was something you never had to think about anymore, unless you hit an asteroid head on. Too bad it wasn't available to everyone. It was hugely expensive.

A roaming transport cart came by as he walked. It was one of the space port's courtesy rides for pilots and or passengers. The landing and takeoff field was huge and could take up to a forty minutes walk to Homage Central, and the driver of course asked if he wanted a lift to the field's central port building. "Yes. Thank you," he said, and stepped aboard the three bench seated hover craft. From the port building he could get to wherever he wished to go via taxi or public trans'. This was a big bright wealthy city, Kytax, and the town had a lot of free services.

he courtesy cart picked up another passenger, a fiery female, a redhead with long, long tresses, who got on and looked his way, briefly, though he had already averted his eyes forward and to port, after an initial study-glance. Women, beautiful women, were not something he longed to be with right then. He was tired, dirty, and not good company at the moment, he knew, being quite exhausted after delivery, maintenance, and computer duties. He was afraid he couldn't be anywhere near civil company for someone like her. She was very beautiful, shapely and sharply dressed, and was probably used to men being overly polite to her. He didn't need that level of output, at the moment, trying to smooth his personality and mental effort to get there. Maybe in a day or two.

e noted she had one very large gym bag over one beautifully broad shoulder and it was a heavy bag. She was nervous, he had seen, with her look arounds, plus, she hadn't locked her ship up, noting the open bay with lights still on. But he tried putting the caution of her presence and perfection of her fleshy, voluptuous appearance out of mind, instead, thinking of his own needs.

I need a resort with a long pool, he'd decided. He wanted to treat himself to a resort stay. Preferably up in the mountains somewhere.

There was still a travel agent open at central and Everett went straight to it. The tiny little woman behind the desk was very helpful and within ten minutes she had him booked and set for transport into town, for his ride via the private crafts to the resort. It was a small out of the way place called, The Stand, out in the middle of the jungle, somewhere, but fully protected from any animals indigenous to the harsh, primitive planet. It was equipped with a store to buy personal needs and clothing and that long pool he desired.

He rested in the waiting area of Homage Central for the transport and a minute or so before he it came, red showed up. She had the same kind of paperwork he had stuffed into his skin tight flight jacket. She needed some rest, too, he assumed, and got on the transport when it showed up, waiting for the 'lady' to board first. He had no idea she was headed for the same resort he was going to till they transferred to the resort specific air-bus.

itting in the middle, somewhere, behind the driver, he tried not to look at her in his surprise, when he first saw red hair. She couldn't possibly be following him, could she? They didn't know each other and what possible motive would she have for doing so? He HAD women follow him before, due to how handsome he was since all the injections and nano-tech and done there work, but he hadn't so much as made eye contact with this one.

No. It was merely a coincidence, he concluded.

There were seven people going there and he let them all depart before leaving the bus. If she was following him, she'd linger, but thankfully, no, that didn't happen.

For a second there, I thought I was going to have a problem.

In his room, following check-in and a trip to The Stand's clothing store and gift shop, open 28 hours a day, on this planet, he knew everything was normal. He undressed, showered long and slow and went to bed in his air conditioned room. It was a wonderful night of sleep and he awoke refreshed, with a healthy appetite.

ruit and juice, three eggs over medium, two large patties of sausage, two whole wheat biscuits with real butter and strawberry jam, and lots of coco. He disliked coffee. Tasted like he imagine bilge water would taste.

Needing to stretch his legs, after his late breakfast, Everett took off on a trail system for a three hour walk. He saw some incredible things from an age what most planets with life on them go through, like ancient forms of life that fit into the dinosaur pocket of its history, flying reptiles, humongous plant eaters, and vicious looking aquatic life, crossing over enclosed bridges and such beam protected areas. No animal even tried to come too near. They had learned from experience and those that didn't, died. He was only thirsty when he returned to the buildings and took advantage of his rooms cups and drank a large amount of water before sleeping. He had a light lunch, even though it was getting late in the afternoon, and then went and changed for a swim.

The water was a lovely temperature, not too cool, nor too warm, he discovered, swishing the water with a foot. He found most of the lat-lanes free and dove in on one end, doing lap after lap, vowing to himself to do this twice a day it felt so good. He was happy he had that running flow pool installed, years ago, aboard The Solar Wind, to keep himself fit on board his ship. After three kilometers, keeping count in his head for every pool length covered, Everett exited the crystal water to let himself air dry beside the fluctuating undulations, dangling his calves in the water. After twenty minutes, he then went to the chaise lounge where he'd laid his towel, boat shoes, t-shirt, sunglasses and book from the store.

He read several chapters of a contemporary spy novel of a planet hopping secret service agent that had several criminal organization after him as well as two world governments by the completion of part one. He marked his place and laid the book aside, and thought he'd take a nap after looking over the pool. There were a lot of attractive 'ladies' around it's perimeter and he filled his eyes with them all, until he came to the redhead that had come to the resort with him, walking to his end for the far away end.

he wasn't playing fair with the other ladies of less endowment than she exposed. For she was wearing a thin, wet, white wrap around her waist that hid nothing of her shaved skin. Her breasts were free and uncovered in the usual style of a world traveling woman and stood proud, and lascivious, to any watching her long legged, high stride, topless walk, that was, of course, accepted everywhere, these days. But it made other women look absolutely drab compared to her skin tones and obvious reality. Even the most attractive ones paled in comparison, that is, if anyone thought they had a chance of comparison. He found himself staring, like many others, and when she glanced his way, as she walked the circumference of the glimmering pool, on the far side, he felt embarrassment, to a small degree, yet did not look away as she continued to stare him down, which didn't work. He liked how she looked but it was obvious to him, if no one else, that she meant to speak to him.

aining his side of the water, she sat down provocatively, legs comfortable wide and not caring what the viewer saw, her breasts freely swaying and then exaggerated, if that were possible, by putting her elbows on her knees, squeezing them together for an even greater prominence. She laid down her towel, took off her sunglasses, and her own book. She looked about the two of them to see that they were quite alone.

"You're Everett Towns, correct?"

"Captain Towns, yes," he said, not wanting to open this conversation up on anything but a professional note. She had a definite purpose in mind when she walked over there and it wasn't to start some silly amorous affair. "I'd like to hire your ship for a one jump charter to Carbon Seck 3, in the Gelit'Tas system."

Everett knew she must be desperate. It was deep in towards the central core, just past the thick nebula's. A very great distance.

"I'm not someone that usually takes on passengers. I'm a freight hauler. Nothing more."

"Yes, I know, and with a very quick craft. The Solar Wind."

he has been doing her homework, he knew, nodding, looking at her chest, again, and then back to her eyes of gold. She had to be Martian, or was, at one time. She had been Millennialized, as the procedures were called, the same he had gone through, was the obvious conclusion. She must have had the same treatments. He couldn't help but wonder how old she really was, even though she looked eighteen. She could be a thousand years old, for all he knew. The original Martians having such a long life span.

"You only take on cargo of the highest nature," she continued. "Mostly precious stones, refined minerals from jewelry producers, investment firms monies, papers, and or banks notes, or highly classified government papers, etc., etc. You have a reputation for outrunning pirates, customs agents, world security systems and any other kind of people that want to board you for any reason and getting the job done. In conjunction with your two drives, you may conceivably have the fastest hybrid ship in the galaxy. That's the type of ship and captain I need to transport me and my cargo. I will pay you handsomely for your time. I have a cargo that needs no interruption in its delivery to Seck 3 and need it done in a hurry. I am vulnerable out in the open like this. I need to leave at the earliest possible hour. Can you do it?"

verett thought long, reclining his head and staring up into the sky, removing his sun glasses. He thought this would cut his resort stay short but the chance of making a lot of money can override any sort of recreational concerns. "I can, if the cargo isn't stolen."

"Let me explain the situation. I am a treasury agent for Carbon Seck 3. The Woollest Corporation on Dannog 5, and numerous other compromised worlds, stole my cargo from the Corredis firm that was to make payment due for trades made in the seventeenth month of 5413A.003. They wanted the cargo for it's raw power to hedge on their losses that year and took them at the cost of several hundred lost lives. I'm carrying them like this, single handedly, because I thought it was less obvious and safer. I was wrong. I've learned from various contacts along the way, that since I reclaimed what was ours in the first place, that there is a force of some concern after me. They almost caught me on the last planet you and I were at, Dadaless, but I escaped here, following you, before I could make contact. Thank goodness you weren't in a big hurry. I was barely able to keep up with you in the rust bucket I borrowed. I need your ship, Captain Towns. You're the only one in several systems that can get me back to my world and my country, with the cargo in tact. What do you say?"

verett didn't say anything. He stared into her eyes. He had been taken advantage of in the past, swindled, fooled, and made a fool out of, so he was hesitant, trying to read her. At ninety-three, though looking like he was in his early twenties, he had his share of gullible moments. Who didn't? "What is the cargo?"

"Forty-seven kilos of Mack-Crystal fuel rods." He knew his face must have reacted. That was a planets; worth of energy for six to eight years.

"I have some conditions."

"Go ahead."

"You pay up front, and I get you to your destination under my own rules and route. Agreed?"

"Yes. Fully."

"The cost will be five billion Sonnges."

"I'll pay ten."

Everett knew he swallowed. "What's your true name then?"

"Kartta Rekkon."

"Martian?"

"Yes."

verett sat up, then stood up, offering his hand to the woman. She was serious, then. Right or wrong, he had a job. Okay then. . . .

She came up holding his hand, moving provocatively, which was to be expected, but oh, what a view. He hoped she would dress more modestly on board. Martians were known to be skimpy about clothing. It was a three month journey, after all, and he didn't want a constant reminder of something he couldn't have all that way there. She was probably well trained in attack and defense, if she really was an agent, as she claimed. Either way. It was a job and he could keep flying, and in style, which was always good. He couldn't believe it. Ten billion for one jump.

Back at the Homage Central field, Everett maneuvered The Solar Wind into the launch cup, nose up at a thirty seven degree angle. That was much steeper by nine degrees than most ships. His was quite a bit more powerful.

"You have your clearance, Captain," said Sheila, his blue surfaced, nearly clear skinned, crystal-like, soft as flesh, sexy co-captain on launch and re-entry, confirmed.

verett pulled the green brake knob back, while pushing the four thruster bars forward in their locked and balanced positions, each giving an exacting readout of even power. As their chartreuse columns rose in their acrylic tubes, it wasn't long before they evened out and Everett tapped the green knob into its forward rest. It clicked dramatically into place with a metallic crack, straight ahead on the flight console, and the ship shot star-ward like a laser, disappearing almost instantly in a deafening roar only those outside the ship, could hear. Inside, passenger and pilots heard nothing but some humming and felt no movement at all with the inertia dampeners on line. They were on their way.

Two weeks into the flight, while eating, and Sheila serving them wine in style, Everett was curious enough to ask, "How DID you get the rods from the Woolest R&D facility? They had to have enormous amounts of security. Didn't they have the rods spread out to make something like this huge a recovery, possible? I would think they were smarter than that."

"Who said they were all in the same place?"

"You said you took them from the R&D lab."

"Labs-s."

"More than one?"

"Yes."

"But, after the first were taken, wouldn't they guard the others with unbeatable forces?"

"Not if there were several Wortals loose in their midst."

"Wortals?"

particularly nasty carnivore out of their planet's plains. They're insatiable, cunning, and blood-thirsty. And they can take a hit from a blaster or beam weapon like few animals can. And they're very quick."

"God."

"Some said that before they died, I'm sure."

"Those several hundred that died. That wasn't your doing, and not their's was it?"

"It was spread about fifty-fifty. But they were in the wrong. I know their leaders didn't care anything about the lives lost, but it had to be done."

"Money, again."

"Yes? You're trying to say something?"

"It always boils down to money. I get it. I guess that old book of myths is right, sometimes. The love of money is the route of all evil."

"You think what I did was evil?"

"If I had been with you, I would have done the same thing. It's just something to reflect on. That's all I'm saying. Innumerable lives have been lost over money. It's incalculable how many. It's just sad, is all."

"Besides being a good pilot, you're a philosopher, too."

"No I'm not. At least not anymore than others are. I'm just guessing about all this ruckus about these fuel rods."

"You're wondering, or thinking, it's blood money you got paid?"

"Something like that."

"Then you might consider not thinking about it. It can't make you feel any better."

omething about her eyes made her seem different and that almost sounded like a threat. She was very sure of herself. He decided to play it cool. This woman, in spite of her looks, was very dangerous. He now regretted asking the question. "Yeah, you're probably right. I have probably transported a lot of stuff that wasn't on the up and up, in spite of the companies reputations. I guess I'm just tired. Sorry for the lousy dinner conversation."

"That's alright. I question what I do for a living, myself, at times," she said "There is no clearly defined path, is there?"

"I suppose not."

Later that evening Everett checked out what a Wortal really was, according to his computers. He'd never heard of them before. What he found was they weren't just carnivores, animals, but they were sentient, and when they wanted to, they could imitate almost any mass or animal. They were almost untameable but in the centuries since the planet had first been discovered, the Wortal race had grown soft on human technologies and comforts, enjoying material goods of all kinds. They had embraced their roll as a supreme fighters and many had been hired out as mercenaries. Hired guns, killers, they didn't care as long as they got what they wanted, whatever that might be. And they weren't indigenous to Dannog 5. They came from their destination, Carbon Seck 3.

he inevitable quest arose in his mind. Was Kartta a Wortal? Did she kill all those guards? And how many was it? Thirty? Eighty? Two hundred? It was a scary thought no matter what the figure was and Everett didn't feel at all comfortable now, inside his own ship. The first time that had happened. But it wasn't the very next day when Kartta began warming to Everett. They fell in love for the duration of the flight and he had never known such an intensity in any kind of relationship before. She was amazing and all thoughts of her being dangerous vanished from his mind. Each day was filled with new wonders, what she and they could do, what heights they could reach together.

he weeks turned into the three months and change it took to get to her designated point of delivery, the Gelit'Tas system, Carbon Seck 3, but arrive the did. On the cargo ramp, following an uneventful landing, there was a sizable security force that met the ship in a special and specified hanger bay. Kartta looked radiant in her finest clothing and when all had departed, she gave Everett a huge kiss goodby.

Before leaving, something horrid occurred, something Everett Towns would never forget as long as he lived, though it might be eternal.

Kartta changed quite suddenly and spoke with a deep man's voice while his body and face changed into a course-featured being of manhood in its ugliest form. It not only repulsed Everett, but taxed his ability to cope with such an image.

"It was fun being a woman for awhile. Thanks for your help, Everett," he said, smiling like a mythical troll, then hopped away down the ramp and into the distance.

Kartta had left, smiling, to Everett's revulsion and laughing with a dissevelled head of red hair.

verett collapsed on the loading ramp and convulsed, vomitting violently for several long minutes. His gags were choked and he gasped pathetically.

Sheila came to him and tried to console him.

"Get us out of here," he screamed without looking at her. "Get clearance this instant and get me away from this world."

And like a good synthetic, Sheila did just that. . . .

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