f anything, the new Trooper Keith's Lost World Tavern, across the spaceport from the old location, was darker and grimier than the one that had burned down. Since Trooper Keith bought the land and built the place to his personal specifications, the patrons had to figure he liked it that way. Besides, there was always the presence of the Exotic Princess Sandy, usually dealing
cards at the poker table in back, and always dressed in the latest revealing fashions to cheer things up. Trooper Keith almost always stood behind the bar, chewing on a nail, and that cheered things up, too.
The Old Spacedog was sitting at the bar sipping one of Trooper Keith's
special rust removers. He wore dark blue shorts, black spaceman's boots turned down at the tops,
and a red bandana tied like a cap over his scalp. He wore no shirt, of course, he never did, and some said that was because it was hard to find a shirt that he could pull down all the way over his belly. Others said with that full, snow-white beard he wore, not to mention the pelt that grew all over his back, what was the point of a shirt? Not many ever asked him about that because once he began talking it was almost impossible to get him to stop. Today he seemed more interested in removing rust than recounting adventures back in the old days and most of the regulars were grateful for that.
There being no poker game in progress, Sandy was moving around the room chatting with the customers. Just now she was talking to another old timer, a stranger whose features were hidden by the shadows in the corner booth in back. The Old Space Dog was casting a casual eye toward her, she being the sort of damsel who's worth a glance, casual or serious. In another part of the bar somebody laughed at a joke.
That was when the newcomer strolled in and eased himself onto the stool next to the Old Spacedog. He was a skinny guy with pale eyes, probably from Earth. He looked mild mannered. Before anyone could warn him, he looked over at the Old Spacedog and said, "Nice day, isn't it?"
"Nicer than some," said the Old Spacedog, dipping his nose in his mug of liquid powder. He gave a sigh and wiped the foam off his upper lip with the back of a hairy arm. "And that makes it even nicer.
You know, Star and me we used to have some pretty nice days back when we was roaming the atarways. And plenty of homemade pirate's punch after any adventure."
"Star? Who was Star?"
"What? You never heard of Star? My partner, he was. Well, the ship's captain, I guess you would call him but since there was just the two of us you couldn't properly call me just a crewman, now, could you? So on that score I guess I was more of a partner. Funny you should mention Star. . ." He got that distant look in his eye, the one like he's staring half across the Galaxy and decades back in time, at the worlds and stars he used to roam. He took another deep swig, settled back on his stool and eyed the mild mannered newcomer a moment before starting his story.
Maybe I don't like to think about how long ago all this was (said the Old Spacedog). I guess you can say this happened back when I was a pup and let it go at that. Star and I were set up on a small moon of a gas giant world near the Agrisiti Cluster, which is further out this arm of the Galaxy. It was a wild place, almost as wild as the Lantern of the Lost Worlds is, and Star loved it. There was always somebody back there for him and me to move in on. Some fool with a thirst for power and cash and bright new gadgets to show off. Those guys were always such easy marks for us, not that we didn't have a close call or two. But Star -- he was always a step or two ahead of them.
There was a bunch of us in that sector those days, though we never worked together. Flint and Reef and Gale, bless her, who was almost as beautiful as the Princess Sandy, gave the bad guys hell, too. Not like Star and me, but
those three had an advantage. They worked through authorized channels. They always managed to represent the law in some way or other. Star and me dove right in and to hell with it. We wanted justice, not law. We were outlawed almost as soon as we showed up in that region and it seemed to me that every week somebody or other added a few hundred GC to the bounty that was out for the two of us, though to tell the truth it was mostly for Star.
Didn't bother Star and I didn't mind either. Whenever we were in the mood for a little fun, we'd look around and Star would find some vacuum head who'd set himself up as high muckety muck someplace or other and was raking in the ill-gottens. We'd move in, put him out of business and somehow end up with all or at least a sizeable share of his dough. Then, over my objections, Star would donate our winnings to some charity or orphanage -- minus our expenses, of course, and a modest profit. Even Robin Hood's got to eat. But eat and operate the ship was about all we ever actually managed. I guess the worst rat we dealt with was a guy called Waylock. He started out small, as a runner for a would-be crime lord name Pody on Rastornon. Well, before long Pody had an accident and was replaced, and not long after that, the guy that replaced him had an accident, too. The accidents didn't stop until Waylock was running things.
Can't say we paid the son of a gun much attention, because Flint and Reef were having the times of their lives making things hot for him. It looked like they had him, too, cause his organization started falling apart. They managed to bring the whole thing down -- except for Waylock himself. Turns out he engineered a lot of it, so as to put his rivals out of the way and take lots more money than his share called for. We thought he retired after that, but down deep inside Star and I hoped -- and knew -- that he hadn't.
Sure enough, about a year later he shows up on Praet.
Well, to cut to the nova, he'd been spending that money pretty shrewdly and building up an organization on Praet of a different sort than the one he ran on Rastornon. He'd bought himself a lot of political power. Had the savvy to go with it, too. One day the whole population of Praet wakes up and finds him running things, thanks to a nice, legal election he'd bought and paid for.
Because of the election, Flint and Reef can't move in on him. They got to do things all legal, you know, and Waylock's the government, with all the power, rights and immunity that can buy. That's when Star and I get interested.
Star used to say when you have a crook running a legal government, it just ain't legal any more. So we started looking into shipments on and from Praet just to see what we thought might be worth our while. And those charities and orphanages and the like that Star was so fond of, just prospered fit to beat the band.
So now Star and me start to get some attention -- from Waylock. First thing he does, of course, is call in the sector authorities and sics the patrol and the rangers on us. Of course that don't work. Reef and Gale and Flint might be dedicated to the law and all that, but they ain't really stupid. Somehow their ships are never at the right place at the right time, or they get there late, or they just can't seem to find any clues. Pretty soon Waylock catches on. For a time he tries stopping us with his own police and military but to do that he needed to hire smarter people. Star and me had a ball making fools out of those guys.
If Star had a weakness -- and I'm not saying he did, just if -- it was the ladies.
Heck, I had the same weakness. We encountered a lot of lookers in our escapades. He was younger than me, so most of them went for him. I guess I was more the "fatherly type." Boy, I hated that, but that's how it was. And sometimes I'd get jealous, I just couldn't help it.
Besides, Star was smooth, just smooth. He'd lift a twenty million credit necklace off some babe's shoulders while her fat old husband stood there sputtering, and she'd give him a kiss just to mark the occasion. It was said dealers sold jewelry to rich woman by guaranteeing that the piece would attract the attention of Star. Star didn't mind, why should he? It was fun and he wasn't about to get serious with any of them.
Then came Lila. We found out about this liner coming into Praet. It was supposed to be full of gangster bigwigs from a dozen star systems, all of them invited by Waylock to a big meeting to discuss pooling their efforts and expanding business. So we intercepted and boarded it. Everybody was hauled into the main ballroom and made to fork over their valuables. It was pretty small time but Star figured we needed to let them know whatever they planned wouldn't be easy. It was a haul, too. All those creeps travel with a lot of money, jewelry, watches and such, and their women are as flashy as you could hope -- with the baubles to match.
But there was one woman there who wasn't flashy at all. She was good, old-fashioned class. She wasn't with any of the gangsters. She stood off by herself, wearing a green number that hugged one of the best-looking figures I ever saw. She didn't yelp or show surprise or anything. Star usually went for blondes or redheads and she was brunette, but she was special. He'd never seen a brunette like this one. I know that for a fact because neither had I, until
I saw the Princess Sandy, of course.
Since everyone on the ship was a crook, they all knew where they stood with Star. They weren't about to press their luck. They were pushing each other out of the way so they could toss him wallets and rings and high-tech gizmos in diamond studded cases. Except her. She just watched it all with a hint of smile on her lips.
Finally, we looted everybody on the ship -- except her. Star walks up to her and gives her this sweeping bow and asks for her contribution.
"If you think I've got something you don't know about," she said, "help yourself."
"I'd rather help myself to what I do know about," Star said. "But we're talking about money and jewelry here."
She was wearing a necklace, and no other jewelry. Frankly, it was a country cousin in that crowd. But she took it off and handed it to him and, like a gentleman, he dropped it in with the rest of the loot. "Thank you, but that's not enough," he said.
"Then will you settle for this?" she said, stepping forward. She tilted her face and gave him a kiss, then and there.
Star didn't expect that -- not from the likes of her. When she was done she stepped back and said, "That's all I have."
He said, "I doubt that. But it's enough." He was silent on the trip back to our base, which wasn't like him. I knew that meant trouble, too, though I wasn't sure how.
We made a good haul, like I said, and none of those crooks seems anxious anymore to make any deals with Waylock. But Star still isn't talking like he usually does. He checks the passenger lists of the liner and finds out her name is Lila Franklin. She's a botanical engineer who's just moved to Praet to do experimental work. Praet was a recently settled world and there was a need for seeds and such that could grow in that environment and botanical engineering was one of those jobs that the planet had a strong need for.
Things settled into a routine as things do. We got us a lead on the sunstone necklace that had been lost for years, and it almost got us killed. There was a gambling syndicate setting up casinos and running fights to the death at rigged odds. We brought down a couple of small time gangsters. That sort of thing. It kept us busy but there weren't much challenge, not really. But I noticed that
every time we got back to base the first thing Star does is he checks up on what's happening on Praet. That's how I knew he'd really fallen for Lila.
One day we get back to our base and Star tunes in the news, there was a real bombshell waiting. It was the announcement of a state wedding on Praet. Waylock himself. And the blushing bride was none other than Lila.
I don't think I ever saw Star stunned that way but that once. He just stared at the screen, not moving. Then he turned it off and walked away. I knew better than to ask questions and he didn't bring the subject up. Lila -- and Waylock. It was more than most men could take.
After that, things were different. Star didn't joke and play around as much and I got to tell you, we pulled some jobs I don't think he would have stood for before that. Nothing dirty, nothing that violated Star's principles too much. But the vinegar was out of him and the loot seemed to count more than the game.
Even I started to think about maybe it was time to call it quits and head back toward Earth and take up some honest way to make a living.
Then one day we got a message. Or Star got one, rather. It was from Lila, and she wanted to meet with him.
It was important, of course, that people should be able to reach us, but important also that the calls couldn't be traced. Star and me had set it up so that there was ways and people knew about them. But it was a complicated system with a lot of random switching and no one ever managed to use it to trace us to our base. A few messages were intercepted but we handled that
by putting out frequent phony calls to send the cops on wild goose chases. Anyone who needed us could get a message to us if they tried. Of course our enemies knew about this and could always send us messages if they wanted to. So we didn't think it unusual that Lila could find out how to do it, although we gave considerable thought to whether or not it was some kind of trap.
Not that Star would have stayed away if he believed it was.
They met on a small moon of a planet not that far from Praet. I stayed with the ship and Star was gone two or three hours. When he came back he was more the old Star, though he was never quite the way he used to be. He and Lila started meeting, either on that small moon or elsewhere, every three or four weeks. After that first time I stopped going with him, even to watch the ship. To tell you the truth, I didn't really like it.
It was almost three months later that we got an unexpected call from her. She sounded scared, and she wanted Star to come see her right away, at the palace. She didn't say anything but it was obvious something was wrong, so when Star told me not to go with him, I told him to go to hell and climbed into the ship.
All the way there I kept thinking of excuses for going back home but I'd look up at Star at the controls and I knew better than to say anything.
We got to Praet and dove in and came up above the palace. To this day I doubt any scientist back there -- or anywhere else -- has developed the equipment to see past that ship's stealth gear. We hovered not far from a window Lila had left open for us and Star went across, and I followed.
We were in a big chamber with beds and couches and expensive furniture of all kind, and I gathered it was Lila's apartment. There she was, wearing blue this time. It was just as sexy as that green number she'd worn the first time we saw her. When she saw Star she ran straight into his arms and was crying.
"I had to do it," she said. "He found out about us. I had to do it."
I got all cold just from the way she said it. I went past them and there, out of sight behind the bed, was Waylock, lying on a very expensive rug, messing it up with his own blood.
"He found out about us, Star." I said she was crying. There were tears coming out of her eyes but you couldn't tell it by her voice. Her eyes cut around to where I was and it was the first indication she gave of even knowing I was there.
"He was going to set a trap for you. I was going to be the bait. He was going to kill me. He was going to kill us both. I had to defend myself."
Star came over to where he could see Waylock. "He doesn't look armed," he said. There was a gun on the floor but it wasn't close enough to the body to be his.
"He was going to hit me," she said in that empty tone of voice. "He could kill me with his fists. I had to protect myself."
"Yeah, I guess you did," he said.
The body wasn't warm and the blood was starting to dry. She came over
and stood next to Star, her hand on his shoulder, looking down at Waylock. "He was going to kill both of us."
"He won't kill anybody ever again," Star said. He started away. She just stood there so he stopped and took her by the hand. "Come on," he said. "We need to get out of here, quickly."
She looked at him like she didn't understand. "What do you mean, get out of here?"
"How long has it been since anyone checked up on you?" Star asked. "His guards will start wondering sooner or later and we need to be out of here before that happens."
Maybe if I'd kept my mouth shut, things might have been different. But, you know, me keeping my mouth shut has never been in the cards. I said, "Just how did he find out about you and Star?"
She looked at me as if stunned by the question. She looked back at Star without saying anything and then and there we both knew what had happened. But Star loved her. She was the only dame he ever really, truly loved.
He said, "We need to get out of here."
"No we don't," she said. "You're being silly, Star."
"Lila --" He took her by the arm again. She pulled away from him.
"Don't you get it Star?" she said. "It's mine now. All of it."
"Lila, you don't mean that."
"The planet -- the power -- the money," she said. "I own it all. And by god, Star, I got to tell you I've earned it. Every damned bit of it."
"The guards --"
"I own them, too."
He let go of her arm. He said, "I doubt that. The kind of government Waylock ran, I doubt he let anyone into a position of power if he thought they'd have the guts to stand against him, but they've all dreamed of it. By this time tomorrow there'll be at least six people -- other than you -- trying to manipulate this situation to their advantage. Half of them probably already have people in the guards who're on their payroll."
"The people will support me."
"Why?" Star asked. "Because you killed Waylock?"
"No." She looked hurt a moment, then puzzled, then angry. "Because you did."
Star just stood there. To tell you the truth, I was as shocked as he was, but I
had no intention of just waiting. I grabbed his shoulder and said, "We need to run."
We were headed for the window when the door flew open and maybe half a dozen guards burst in.
"Don't let them get away," she said. She pointed at Star. "He killed my husband."
Star and I had our own guns out and each of us dropped a guard. They scrambled for cover. But not Lila. She picked the gun up off the floor -- the one she'd killed Waylock with -- and pointed it straight at Star.
Where she was standing, the guards couldn't get a clear shot at us. But she could. Star said her name and there was a lot of pleading in the way he said it.
"Assassin!" she screamed, and pulled the trigger.
The blast caught Star in the shoulder, just a graze. But his gun went off, whether by reflex or intent, I don't know. It caught her in the midsection and she got that look of utter shock people get and then she fell.
The guards had a clear shot then but they were as stunned as we were; and they were getting in their own way, too. Star just stood there. I pushed him to the window, yelling, "Let's go! Let's go!" and minutes later we were on the ship and headed into space.
I took the helm and didn't even go in the direction of our base. It was past
time we should have moved, anyhow. Star was too stunned to think but I saw things clearly enough for both of us. These were new charges and while Reef and Flint and Gale might not believe them, they were serious. This time they had to come after us, figuring to let us prove our innocence at a trial. Trials aren't for the innocent. I never figured we'd have any sort of chance on Praet. So we left the region and after a few months we sort of broke up.
Trooper Keith refilled the Old Spacedog's mug. He took two deep swigs out of it.
The mild mannered guy had fled to a table. The Princess Sandy sat down on the stool he had vacated.
"There weren't a lot of places we could go," the Old Spacedog said. "To tell you the truth I was pretty fed up with adventure, so I headed down here where I thought I might not have to worry about the law. I got a job in the salvage yard, and stopped playing Robin Hood. I never thought Robin Hood was all that bright, anyway."
"What about Star?" "Well, it was different with him. After the dust settled on Praet, the new dictator put a pretty heavy reward out on him. Turns out all them other rewards were for him, not us. It's kind of an insult, I guess, but you know, I don't mind it so much these days as I used to."
"Did Star ever come down here?" Sandy asked. "To the Lantern of the Lost Worlds? It's a good place to hide."
"Now how would I know a thing like that?" asked the Old Spacedog. He
emptied his mug and reached into his pocket. "What do I owe you, Keith?"
"You don't owe for today," Sandy said.
"Seems that guy I was talking to liked your story. He paid you bill."
"That stranger back in the corner," she said. "The good looking blond guy back --" She peered at the corner table. It was empty.
The front door opened and she turned around. "Him," she said, pointing. "He's just leaving."
Keith refilled the mug. "He overpaid so you're due another rust remover."
For a long moment, the Old Space Dog sat there, staring at the door.
"Do you know him?" asked Sandy.
"What?" said the Old Spacedog. He turned back around and picked up his mug. "Of course I don't know him. Never saw him before in my life."
He looked at the mug and smiled. "Charity," he said. "Sweet, sweet charity."