don't work for nobody I can whip!" Bull Larsen said, balling his fist.

A circle of quiet anticipation expanded from the two men into the large and smoky room.

They were standing at the bar at Pegleg Pete's Revenge on Asteroid X. Bull was a large, square-jawed human. He was looking at Will Claybourne, a compact Earthie who was as tall as Bull, but not as broad.

Lightly, Will pulled at his earlobe and replied, "Interesting job reference. Want to step outside?"

"Nah," Bull grunted. "I like to smash things."

Anticipating trouble, the bartender snapped, "Loser pays the damages!" He was a massive green-scaled Todian. No one doubted he could enforce his rule.

The two men faced each other, then Bull swung a huge fist at Will. Will ducked, sinking his own fist into Bull's broad stomach. Well, he hit the stomach with a decisive punch, but Bull ignored it, swinging another fist at Will's head.

Will dodged, but the fist hit his shoulder and knocked him against the bar. As he fell back, he kicked Bull where his balls should have been - and felt his foot bounce off a metal shielding plate.

Bull swept up a bar stool and swung it, trying to knock a home-run with Will's head as the ball.

The stool crashed into the bar and Wok, the Todian barkeep, made the first entry on his list.

Will dove aside, hitting the floor beside Bull, and sprang to his feet, swinging a balled fist into Bull's side.

Startled, Bull gasped and then turned toward Will. "Not bad for a softy," he spat out, grabbing Will by the shoulder. He was big, but Bull was quite fast. Instead of pulling away, Will did a back-flip and let the momentum release him.

The crowd had stepped back, but three pink tentaculars were bunched where Will regained his footing. The aliens squealed, and pushed Will back at Bull.

The big man shot out a fist and hit Will in the side of the head. Will felt blood in his mouth. "First blood," he told Bull. "Good - but not good enough!"

He punched a fist at Bull's stomach but, at the same time, swung a haymaker at Bull's face.

Blood spurted from Bull's nose.

"Watch it, Bull!" shrieked a skinny little man who had been standing with Bull when it all began.

"I've got him, Imp!" Bull growled.

Will grinned. "A shrimp named Imp, huh?"

Then came something that surprised Bull and the mixed crowd.

Will grabbed Bull and lifted him over his head, then slammed the big man into a table.

When the table crashed under Bull's back, Will jumped and both his feet slammed into Bull's chest. Air whooshed out of Bull's lungs and Will sat on him, one leg over each muscular arm.

"I don't want to kill you," Will said, "just get you on my crew!"

Bull gasped for breath, and then grinned. "Hello, bossman," he said, in resignation.

The crowd applauded.

When the two got to their feet, Will handed Bull a kerchief. "Wipe your nose," he said.

"Pay the bill!" Wok demanded.

Will turned and faced the barkeep. He dug a piece of crystal from his pocket. "Ninety-eight carat plumanent," he said. "That should pay for the damages and buy everyone a serving of their favorite drink."

Pulling out a jeweler's loupe, Wok examined the stone, then looked at the crowd. "Drinks for everybody!" he announced.

"I was ‘sposed to pay that," Bull murmured.

Smiling, Will told him, "I'll take it out of your salary. Let's go."

"Need a good bookkeeper?" Imp asked in a shrill voice. "I can make numbers do whatever you want."

"We'll talk outside," Will said, pulling at his earlobe again.

When the door closed behind them, Bull asked, "What kind of job is this gonna be?"

"More than a job," Will said. "I'm fighting the Assyrians."

"You don't believe in doing things small, do you?" Bull said, grinning broadly. "Them green Assyrians done took over all this part of the galaxy." His grin widened. "A man after my own heart."

Looking down at Imp, Will asked, "What can you do other than numbers?"

A sly smile creased Imp's narrow face. "Ain't a weapon made I can't use," he said with confidence. "From knives to cannons, I can handle ‘em all - and," he added, "I'm better'n most anyone else with ‘em, too." He pulled a small packet out of a belt-clip. "With these tools, I can open any lock ever made."

Will chuckled. "Nothing like modesty," he said.

"Gotta make enough to keep my three girl-friends happy. Can't see ‘em too often, but a rich present now and then'll keep ‘em on the hook."

Will looked at the small man. "Three?" he asked.

Imp hung his head in embarrassment. "I know, I know;" he whimpered. "‘Sposed to have one in every port, but three's all I can afford."

Will laughed.

Asteroid X had an unusual gravity, almost Earth normal, despite its size. Some claimed it had a small black hole at its heart.

"My ship's that way," Will said, pointing in a direction past a large warehouse. "Let's go.

"I came here," Will continued, " because the Assyrians usually ignore X. Some think blasting X would activate the black hole. They know most of the criminals in the galaxy come to the bar, but they're chasing patriots, not criminals."

Bull nodded. "They don't give a damn about crime," he agreed.

"Well, we're about to give them some criminals they will worry about," Will said grimly. "We're going to introduce them to space piracy."

Bull gave a booming laugh. "And pirates get a good slice of the take, right, bossman?"

Will chuckled and pulled his earlobe. "Wouldn't have it any other way. If we're going to risk our lives slicing away at the Assyrians, we need to be paid for it!"

As they neared the deeply-shadowed near end of the warehouse, Will kept eyes and ears open. He felt there was a presence in those shadows, but couldn't detect anything. Senses still alert, he led them past the shadows. "Got two more to introduce you to," he said as they moved along – then he stopped.

A Rastorian, tall and red and gangly, stepped out from the other end of the warehouse. He was gangly, but Will knew Rastorians had muscles like steel cables. Besides, there was a pistol in the large, red hand.

"Saw what you gave Wok," the Rastorian said. "Must be more where that came from. I'm not alone! Come on, guys!"

Three Rastorians came from the shadows Will had mistrusted.

Will was startled to see Imp duck, then roll toward the lead Rastorian and leap onto the gun hand. One of the Rastorians behind them swung a large club. Bull grabbed the club, yanked, then had the alien's arm. He lifted the being off his feet, swung him, and slammed him into the others.

Will jumped toward them, leaping high and kicking a Rastorian in the chest. There was a tangle of red and flesh, and Will heard a gun go off behind him. No time to worry about Imp! Entangled in the long and very strong red arms of the alien, he had his own troubles - and Bull, despite his use of the club, was being pulled down.

Will poked his fingers into the Rastorian eyes and was rewarded by a scream of pain. Beside him, Bull was trying to rise. Will fell backwards, pulling the alien with him. Bending his knees, Will kicked the Rastorian at one of the aliens who was fighting Bull. Jumping to his feet, Will grabbed another alien, pulling him off Bull. Bull tossed him a grin and smashed his opponent's head with the club.

Will lifted his own opponent over his head, and turned to the leader.

The leader was down, and Imp was standing over him, gun in his hand. Will tossed his unconscious red alien into the pile.

"They're out of it," Bull said, slapping his hands against each other and grinning at the red tangle at their feet.

Will was gawking at Imp. "But," he began.

Imp giggled. "His pistol wasn't charged," the little man grinned. "Told you I know weapons."

"But you shot him," Will said, puzzled.

"Sure," Imp said. "I know how to give it a quick boost." He looked at the pile of aliens. "Good thing you guys could handle ‘em," he add. "One charge was all it had."

Will shook his head in amazement. "You've proven your worth to the crew." Certain the aliens were no longer a threat, he added, "Let's get to my ship." He pulled at his earlobe.

Lifting an eyebrow, Bull said, "You're gonna have a helluva long earlobe, you keep that up."

Will grinned. "Mother used to say the same thing. Habit I've had all my life. Well," he added, "here's my ship."

"Don't look so big," Bull remarked.

"Big enough," Will said, opening the airlock. "Come on in and I'll introduce you to the others."

Following, Bull asked, "How'd you get so strong? Born off-world?"

"You got it," Will agreed. "Grav thirty percent above normal." He added, with bitterness, "But not any more. Those humanoid Assyrians destroyed it, the green bastards."

"No wonder you hate them!" Bull said, as Will led them into a large room. Its walls were covered with dials and instruments. In the center of the room was a large console-desk with several chairs.

Pulling his earlobe, Will said, "Bull, I want you guys to meet –" he began, then stopped, his eyes sweeping the room. "Okay, Bobbat," he said. "Enough. You can't stay like that for long."

In a fluid motion, one of the chairs twisted, then evolved into a silver-grey being not much bigger than Imp. It was wearing a blue body-suit. "Hello, Chief," he said, grinning.

"A morph!" Bull said, surprised. "Never seen one before."

Babbat held out a three-fingered hand. "Hello, Bull," he said. They shook hands. "Chances are you won't find another morph around here. What few are still alive have escaped the Assyrian area of the galaxy." He held a hand out to Imp. "I'm Babbat," he said. "You are...?"

Taking Babbat's hand, the small man grinned and said, "They call me Imp. I heard you can't stay changed very long."

"About fifteen minutes," Babbat said. "But I can't talk when I'm changed, even if I'm changed into a speaking creature."

Bull's eyes scanned the room. "I thought there were more?" he asked.

"Hello, Bull and Imp," said a bodiless voice. There was humor it its tone.

The two newcomers looked wildly around. "I don't see nothing," Bull said.

Will laughed. "Actually, you've been seeing Rob ever since you came aboard," he said. "Rob is the ship."

"The ship?" Imp squeaked. "But it called us by name!"

Smiling, Will said, "Imp - meet IMP. Intelligent Mechanical Presence."

"But I thought they was just oversized computers!" Bull objected.

"All but this one," Will admitted. "I'm a bit of a scientist. Managed to give Rob self-awareness."

"Makes me work hard, too," Rob said, humor still in his voice. Then he added, "I not only keep the engines and controls in top condition, I can also change the shell of the ship."

"Rob can even disguise us as an Assyrian ship, if needed," Will supplemented. "Or any other kind of vessel. Stealth capability, too; not invisible to the naked eye, but invisible to detecting programs."

Pulling a lobe, Will went to a compartment on one wall. "Here's something else I made," he said, pulling out a metal and plastic contraption about four feet long, two feet wide, and three feet deep. It had a swept-back windscreen, handlebars, and a molded plastic small seat. "My grav-bike," he said with pride.

"Wow!" Bull said. "But why the windscreen? Grav-bikes don't have much speed."

"Mine does," Will said. "Fiddled around, added a few things, and it'll reach ever bit of two hundred."

Imp whistled. "That is impressive!"

Then Will turned back to the console table. "Not as impressive as this," he said, flipping a switch.

In response, a brown box appeared on the table top.

"Pick that up, Bull," Will said.

"Pick it up?" Bull asked. "Hey, it ain't no bigger than six inches."

"Try it," Will said, smiling.

Bull put one big hand on the cube and tried. Grunting, he tried again, then used both hands. With no results. "What the hell...?"

"It's a stasis field," Will explained. "If it was tuned to the universe instead of the ship, it would tear through that wall as it kept up with the universe." Then Will added, "One drawback - like Babbat's morphing, there's a time limit. It only lasts an hour. But it can expand to one hundred feet across."

"Double and triple wow," Bull said, having released the cube. "How in the world did you do that?"

Will shook his head. "Wasn't me," he said. "Maxi created it." "Where's Maxi?" Bull asked.

"She stays at headquarters," Will said softly.

Grinning broadly, Bull said, "‘She'?"

Will nodded, a grim expression on his face. "I told her she was too valuable to be in the middle of danger." Eyes sparkling, he added, "Maxi says I'm a male chauvinist. I just agree with her."

"How'd you come across her?" Imp asked.

"I was looking for an original-thinking scientist who had lots of knowledge and experience. I found her," he added grimly, "but she had been captured by the Assyrians. I rescued her."

+ + +

Maxi had been desperate. The Assyrians had her parents, and wanted her to use her scientific genius to improve their weapons.

"We will kill them if you don't produce!" an Assyrian told her.

She didn't want her parents killed, but she didn't want to strengthen those horrible aliens, and enable them to spread even further. She tried giving them small advances.

"Look at this!" she told her Assyrian supervisor.

"Yes?"

"I'm nearly finished expanding your stasis field," she said. "It's already capable of reaching twenty feet!"

"We want more!" the Assyrian snarled. "Remember, we have your parents!"

Head bowed in despair, Maxi said, "I'll do what I can."

The appearance of two Assyrian guards hadn't surprised her. They made a habit of escorting her to their leader, where more threats would be made. When they went into the hall, one walked ahead and one behind.

"Does one small girl scare you that much?" Maxi asked sarcastically. "It always takes two to go with me."

"Standard procedure," the lead Assyrian said gruffly.

With her eyes down, Maxi didn't see the side wall shimmer and then turn into the morph, Babbat. He leapt on the trailing alien and became a smothering cube.

Will stepped out after the ‘wall' disappeared. He grabbed Maxi by the arm and pulled her back as he used a laser sword to decapitate the Assyrian in front of her.

"This way!" Will urged, pulling her around a corner.

Maxi looked behind her. "But what about him...it?"

"He'll follow," Will said, "after that green bum is smothered. Quick!"

"Can't he turn into some kind of worm and get into that thing's brain?"

Will shuddered. "There are some things he can't do, and some things he won‘t do."

As they ran, there was a beep from Will's wrist. "Flatten against the wall!" he snapped. She could now hear footsteps coming down the intersecting hall.

Maxi did as she was told, and watched Will take a few steps to the intersection, laser sword raised. When an Assyrian stepped out, Will sliced his head off. Looking back at Maxi, he said, "Hope no one comes counting heads until we're out!"

A large bird flew past Maxi, landed beside Will, and turned into Babbat. "Green blood everywhere," he said with a grin. "I do love green!"

Will approached a ventilator screen. In seconds, he had it removed and motioned to Maxi. "In here, and fast. There'll be an alarm any minute."

A long ladder led up the tube. Minutes passed like hours, and then the three of them were on the roof. Will led her to a large structure not far away. When they reached it Will said, "Resume, Rob."

To Maxi's amazement, the structure became a spaceship. "How, how did," she began, but Will urged her inside.

"Time for explanations later," he said, leading her to the control room.

"Shouldn't we get going?" Maxi asked with urgency.

"We're already into the stratosphere," a voice told her.

"But I didn't feel ... oh! You have an inertia damper!"

Will tugged at his ear and said, "That, and a lot more. But before I explain our secrets, I have to tell you something." His steady gaze met Maxi's eyes. "I'm not a knight in shining armor," he said. "Heroism can be for idiots. I rescued you because I need your help against the Assyrians."

Maxi gasped. "My parents!" she squeaked. "I wasn't thinking! They'll kill my parents!" She pulled at Will's arm. "You've got to take me back."

Will shook his head. There was a solemn expression on his face. "Hate to be the one to tell you, but they're dead. Been dead. The Assyrians seldom bother with keeping prisoners."

Maxi collapsed into a chair and buried her face in her hands as she sobbed. At last she swallowed, took a deep breath, and looked up at Will. "Logic told me that," she said. "But I wanted so much to believe -" Another sob shook her body before she looked back at Will. Even though her face was now expressionless, the very lack of expression showed her determination. "I promise you I'll do everything I can against those, those criminals." The manner is which she said it, the word was much stronger than ‘bastards'.

+ + +

When they reached headquarters, Will introduced Bull and Imp to Maxi. She stood straight as she shook hands. Her black hair was in a bun atop her head. She was slender, but her body had attractive curves.

Bull lifted his eyebrows. "Will tells us you're a top-notch scientist," he said. "Pardon me, but you don't look a day over thirty. How'd you rise so fast?"

"I'll take that as a compliment, Will," she said. "Actually, I'll be forty in a couple of years. I gained my skills by being home-schooled before I entered Space University."

Imp was looking around the massive room, packed with some equipment he recognized, but much that was totally unfamiliar. He looked at Will. "You musta been, ah, ‘liberating' a lot of money from the Assyrians, Will. This stuff don't come cheap."

Will nodded. "Started when I was a kid, stealing food and lifting credit cubes. Went on to bigger things." He tightened his lips. "They owe us that, and much, much more."

Looking at Maxi, he smiled. "Not long ago, Maxi completed the hundred-foot stasis machine, with some extras. It garnered me the biggest take ever. The bank of the Assyrian's --"

‘Top general," Imp cut in. "Heard about that."

"How could you steal with a stasis machine?" Bull asked. "Like you showed me, they don't move!"

Taking a slight yank at his ear, Will said, "Well, as I said, Maxi fixed a few extras, starting with a special body suit. It gives off a radiation that allows me to move into a stasis field. Using that same principle, she built a small projection pistol that bathes a part of the field with the right particles. After that, whatever you spray - say, for instance, a door - is out of stasis."

"But you still would need to bypass all the security surrounding it," Imp objected. "It was put in the middle of a three mile circle outside of town. Planted all kinds of alarms in the ground and even in the air. Top-tech security, I might add."

Will nodded. "Top-tech indeed! As a matter of fact, it took Rob over half an hour to get within five hundred feet of the vault. At that point, I discarded the original plan. We were just a little over three miles above because the security was in a series of globes. I changed the setting on the stasis field, turned it on for a prescribed number of seconds, then turned it off as the vault soared off into outer space." Will smiled. "Went to the predetermined location, entered the vault, picked all the locks, blasted the actual vault safe and cleared it out. Took everything back to the lab."

In awe, Bull asked, "Is there anything you can't do?"

Chuckling, Will said, "All too much! I'm only one man; that's why I – ah – recruited you. There are trillions of Assyrians out there. Doesn't matter how much I can do, I'm badly outnumbered." He pulled a roll of paper out of a slot in his desk. Unrolling it on his desktop, he said, "Take a look at this."

Imp and Bull huddled over the drawing and specifications of a space freighter. Imp whistled. "She's a big one!" he said.

"Any idea of how to take it over?" Will asked.

"Can Babbat slip in as a crew member?" Bull suggested.

"Too late for that," Will told him. "Didn't get wind of this until it was underway."

Bull studied the specifications. "Too big for your stasis field." He looked at Will. "What's your plan?"

Smiling, Will said, "Actually, I will use the stasis field."

"But the freighter is –"

Impatiently Maxi interrupted. "Will likes stringing things out. All we'll do is put the ship's power room in stasis. With no propulsion, you can enter through an airlock, go the the control room and take over."

Will chuckled. "She's got it. Of course, there'll be soldiers on board who will try to stop us. That's where we'll have to fight."

"Fight!" Bull exclaimed exultantly. "Now you're talking language I can understand."

"Which is why you're here," Will said. "That freighter is loaded with weapons. I want them. This is the start of our first mission."

+ + +

Rob remained disguised as a meteor as the space freighter passed. "Life support?" Bull asked.

"Mechanical backup keeps life support going, as well as artificial gravity," Will said.

Bull punched him on the arm. "All in those specs, if I knew what to look for, right?"

"Right. Let's get going."

A small scout ship attached itself magnetically to the freighter's hull, matching an airlock. Will looked at the silvery Babbat. "The detector I used in Maxi's prison won't work here; the prison was stone and plastic; the freighter's mostly metal. I'll need you to become a bee, or some fast-flying insect to fly ahead of us and report back when you find the enemy." When Babbat noddcd, Will, Bull, Babbat and Imp went in, emerging in a passageway. "This way," Will said, and ran down the passage. The floor had once been shiny, but now the shiny was only at the edges, and thousands of footsteps had worn the rest to raw metal. The outer wall curved with the hull of the ship; on the right, there were occasional intersecting doorways.

Babbat had changed and disappeared down the hall, well ahead of them. When Will saw him returning, he ordered, "Against the wall!" before the morph could change. Then Babbat was standing in front of them. "A dozen Assyrian troopers are double-timing it down the intersecting doorway ahead."

"Armed?" Will asked.

"No, just a standard patrol."

"Four to one odds; sounds unfair," Bull said, grimly. Then he added with a grin, "For them!"

"Three to one!" Babbat objected. "Don't forget I'm here."

"Yeah," Bull said. "Well..."

The intersection was just ahead of them. "Babbat, make a wall in front of us," Will said. "Roll up to the ceiling when they're all out."

They were hidden by a wall.

In a moment came the sound of footsteps. Then the wall rolled up, revealing twelve startled Assyrian guards. Before they could react, Bull and the others were on them. Will knocked out one, kicked another in the stomach, while Bull grabbed another, picked him up and used him as a club against the others. Imp darted from one to another, a quick jab to the chin, the slash of a palm edge against a throat, a punch on the nose of another.

Giving a satisfied look at the pile of Assyrian guards, Will said, "Let's bind them and gag them, then move on."

As they finished, a shrill whistle sounded down the intersecting hall. "Intruders!" shouted another Assyrian. A ray blast just missed Will. Another ten guards were coming, these fully armed.

In a crouch, Imp suddenly had a ray pistol in each hand, returning the fire. Bull, dodging the rays, plowed into the attackers. Laser sword swinging, Will joined the fray. When a survivor turned to flee, Will tackled the Assyrian and brought him down.

Not breathing hard, Will surveyed the damage. "Again, bind and gag survivors," he said.

Finished, they went back to the main passageway and continued to the control room. "Freeze!" Will commanded, as they burst in.

"There's only four of them!" the captain said. "Take them!"

"We have a secret weapon," Will said. "Show ?em, Babbat!"

Suddenly a flame-spouting dinosaur appeared, roaring. The Assyrians froze.

"I thought he couldn't talk when changed," Imp said.

"You call that talking?" Bull grinned.

"Eject your cargo!" Will ordered.

"There's no power!" the captain objected.

"Don't give us that crap!" Bull said. "The cargo hold is on manual, and you know it. Spill it, damn you!"

Reluctantly, the captain pulled a lever. "Done," he said, grudgingly.

After tying them all up, Will and his crew returned to the scout ship and rejoined Rob. Inside, Bull's grin widened. "Okay, bossman; mission accomplished!"

"Almost," Will said, as Rob used tractor beams to regain the cargo. "There's still one more step."

Later, on the opposite side of Asteroid X, two groups stood on opposite sides of a plain. In the middle of the plain was a large pile of boxes. "Okay, Bronk!" Will shouted across the plain. "Here are the arms you paid for!"

Bronk, the leader of the other group, said, "All I see is boxes. We need to inspect them."

"Feel free," Will said.

Bronk and three of his men approached the boxes. In minutes, all were open and inspected. "Wait a minute!" Bronk said, looking at Will. "Lots of pistols and rifles - but no ammo! What's the trick?"

"I'll explain," Will said.

"Damn right you will!" Bronk said. Then he looked back at his group. "Bring him out, Hoss!"

A man emerged from the group, holding a glowing force-field. Inside it was a frozen Babbat.

"Caught your morph, we did!" Bronk said with pride. "Give us our ammo, or he dies!"

Bitterly, Will said, "You don't trust me, do you?"

"Damn right!" Bronk said. "Do you trust me?"

Will, smiling slightly, said, "Not yet. Put him in the center of the plain, go back to the rocks behind you, and I'll tell you where to find the ammo. When you find it, release the force-field. Good enough?"

"Just so's the ammo is there!" Bronk said. "Put him down, Hoss."

Will took a step toward Babbat. "Hold it!" Bronk said. "Leave him alone until I have the ammo!"

"There's a big flat slab of rock," Will said. "Lift it, and you'll find a large box full of ammo." He paused, as Bronk followed instructions. "See it?" Will asked.

"Yeah, there's the slab," Bronk said. "Lift it, boys!" There was the sound of grunting, then Bronk announced, "There's a box, all right. Open it!" In a few more seconds he said, "Release the force-field, Hoss."

As the green glow faded, Will rushed to Babbat, who leaned toward Will and said something. Will nodded, then straightened. "Bronk! There's more! Dig under where the ammo box is."

After the sound of shovels at work, Bronk said, "Yeah, there's another box."

"Look in it," Will suggested.

"Damn!" Bronk exclaimed. "Two space cannons, and - plumanent! Two big rocks! Hey, they're worth more than I paid you!"

"That's right, Bronk," Will said. "Just wanted to verify your reliability. Babbat tells me he heard nothing but good while he was eavesdropping on your group. That's why he was there. And I'm sure you know the plumanent needs to be turned quickly; the Assyrians are looking for it."

"Damn right!" Bronk replied. "Know just how to move it. We thank you very much."

"Anything to recruit more help," Will said. "And there'll be more. You and your group are now official members of Space Pirates Anonymous!"

Cheers and applause rose from Bronk's group.

Will turned to Bull. "Now," he said, with satisfaction, "mission one is officially completed."

CONTENTS

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