THE CAPTAIN OF THE TEMPEST

By Gerald W. Page and Carleton Grindle

Illustrations by Jerry Burge
   

Of all the merchantmen who flew their starships in and out of the Lantern of the Lost Worlds, none was more strange than Esmond van Orst. Why? He was an honest man, for one thing; and a reliable one.

His ship was called the Tempest. It was large and was a starry wonder; you could not tell if its gorgeously shaped, red-brown hull was of metal, some strong ceramic, or yet another material. (I'll give you a hint: choose the third answer.) Who or what had built it even Orst could not tell you. But he could fly that ship. He could maneuver it with an agility that defied its mass and size but that was more than right for the look of her. No other ship could match the Tempest for beauty and sleekness, maneuverability, and - like its master - strangeness.

Van Orst was plump, pleasant of disposition, his complexion ruddy - though not so ruddy as the hull of his ship - and a good captain to work for. Most who worked for him were women. He was partial to the small, lovely women of Olume, in a star system close by. He called them his "nieces."


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Then as now, the Lantern of the Lost Worlds was a place of thieves and head knockers from a thousand planets, for authority was purely local in nature. The Fellowship of the Back Cross made a pretense of policing portions of the nebula but it was just an excuse to glorify their thievery by calling it taxation. Various groups representing the worship or service of this or the other Great Old One carried militia or police - ha! To call them that! - on their duty roles, and even secret services which they probably found more useful. No planet or political entity outside the nebula claimed to have any authority. None sent in armies or fleets, and even the Lustrum stayed away unless it absolutely had to come in on specific business. So the place was wide open. Not to mention dangerous. Van Orst managed to do a great deal of business there, despite the danger, because he would generally show up on time and with all the cargo you had paid for, not just the portions he didn't want. Of course it helped that he had friends in high places. He carried cargo for the feared witch Aelon and brought her presents of rich silk and a surprising range of tidbits and sweetmeats to give her pleasure. Between voyages he caroused occasionally with Thel, that smiling adventurer who was the bane of the warlords and whom the warlords feared almost as much as they feared Thel’s lover Aelon; it was even said van Orst could match Thel in a mock duel with swords, but this is probably untrue.

Sometimes van Orst carried passengers, and among them was often Meriem, the High Priestess of Cthulhu, who governed the minions and worshipers of that Great Old One, said to dwell somewhere in the nebula until such time as he awoke and strode forth to devour the galaxy. And also there was a certain vintage of wine van Orst sometimes brought into the nebula. It was from far-off Luris, and the sorcerer Mesrick Dwaln favored it. Dwaln considered

van Orst a friend, and he was as loyal as van Orst was; though far stranger and much more dangerous.

So van Orst enjoyed a freedom of movement and action within the Lantern that no other being did. Every pirate knew about the Tempest, and many found saliva in his mouth from just thinking of the wealth he could acquire from waylaying the ship, but none considered that with much actual ambition.

Of course there are exceptions, and this one's name was Pulch.

Now, I saw Pulch once, and I'm not going to describe him to you - I think it was a 'him' but maybe I should call him 'it' - because it would stir up memories I'd just as soon let lie. Suffice it to say he was squat and grimy and of the same color in as Uranus - the planet Uranus. If there were two more joints in his arms you'd have to call them tentacles.

Pulch spent his ground time on a lot of worlds, it being best for him to be a moving target, but there was a bar on Obrust he was fond of. It had a certain ambience if you were partial to the sort of place where the floor covering was an ankle-deep layer of slimy, crawling worms that slid around like narrow intestines as you drank. And it served the slop that Pulch preferred to drink, a kind of swill from Jairt, where they are famous for making that solvent that cleans out rocket tubes. Ordering a flagon of that spirit he would go to a table and, after he had cleared it of worms with a swipe of his forearm, he would sit and drink and brood for hours on the question of how to steal the treasures on the Tempest.

Ah, the treasures of the Tempest. Its cargo changed voyage to


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voyage, naturally. But there was one thing the ship was always loaded with and it sparked a flame that heated Pulch's greed. The crew. The small, oh so lovely human women who flew that ship. Well, of course, those were not the sort of animals that appealed to Pulch in his sporting moments, but he was a pirate and a good pirate is like an appraiser of art or fine antiques. He can tell when something will appeal to his customers. Slave trade flourished here and there, and that line of retail could be very, very profitable. But how to take the ship? Pulch brooded a long, long time, and finally he found himself brooding on the answer.

So Pulch hied himself to another bar, a place slightly higher on the social scale, and sought out the company of a fellow pirate who went by the sobriquet of Sadie the Ladie. Now, Sadie the Ladie was no Girl Scout, no sir, not she. She had flown with Ulunoi the Torturer in his heyday, and Bort Valon almost up until his decline. Brunette and alluringly shaped for a human, and by no means a large creature, she was tough and independent and had been around the nebula a time or two. She claimed still to be a virgin, a claim some regarded as outlandish for a woman of her age - not that she was old, mind you; she was still quite young by some standards; just not those of space pirates; or virgins. Pulch believed her claim for, although Sadie had been known to sell herself to a likely gentleman on many and sundry occasions, they all had been found penniless in some alleyway a short time later, a knife sticking in their cold, cold backs, and a disappointed look frozen on their dead, dead faces.

 

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"And what do you want," she asked Pulch, not sweetly, as it parked itself in a chair at her table. Other customers were discreetly migrating upwind.

"I want to own my own star system," Pulch said. "But I'll settle for one measly planet or two. How would you like the other one?"

She lifted up her heavy steel flagon as if considering whether or not to hit him with it; then made up her mind and drank from it instead. She slammed it down on the table, wiped her mouth with the sleeve of her peach colored blouse, and said, "Is that your humorous way of telling me you got a job lined up, you slime pit?"

"Well, there is a project I've been mulling and it might interest you. Unless you've gotten rich rolling suitors out back of this establishment."

Though she was lovely as a kitten in her way - a tiger kitten or maybe just a young cobra - the truth was Sadie the Ladie wasn't enjoying affluent times. Of the last three purses she had earned, none of them had held anything but coins. It was disheartening.

"I was thinking it might be a good thing to move on before things turn stale on me," she admitted. "What's the job?"

Pulch looked around to make sure no one was listening, then leaned forward and whispered, "The Tempest."

"Give me a moment to drain my flagon and I'll hit you with it," she snarled.

"No," Pulch said. "I'm serious. I've figured out a way to do it. I heard some news about the ship earlier today and it provides the opening we need." In even more conspiratorial tones, it outlined its plan for her and she listened, amazed. Well. The upshot is she never got around to crowning Pulch with her flagon.

2

Olume is a charming planet with gorgeous scenery and lovely denizens. Though it has a mellifluous name, van Orst found its language barbaric and saying most names his crewmembers came aboard with were like acid in his throat. So he renamed them: Abigail of the sea-green eyes and honey hair; blonde Flora who was taller than the others - taller even than van Orst -; Beatrice with her impish face and dimples; grave, willowy Millicent, with her dreams of a less adventurous life; and Theodora who was plump but not too plump, and nicely rounded.

There was one exception to this naming ritual and that was Tylvia, whose native name not only could be said without discomfort, but actually had a poetic ring to it. Tylvia was the youngest of van Orst's nieces, and looked on the universe through big, sea-green eyes that saw everything as wonderful and magical, even though she spent most of her time in the gray, dismal depths of the Lantern of the Lost Worlds.

And questions? She was as full of them as a four year old child. She even asked the captain who he was and where he came from and how the devil did he ever acquire a ship like this and from whom. Those were questions the captain did not like to answer, but he loved to spin tall falsehoods in response and never the same one twice.


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On Pasquintain he visited the villa of Meriem Abd Al-Azred, the High Priestess of Cthulhu, to talk business. The planet was outside the Lantern but you could see it in the sky as they sat down on her patio to a light supper. The central bar of the galaxy was visible behind it and you could faintly see the bar blazing through the haze. A skein of orange lightning played across the surface of the nebula.

Tonight Meriem wore a sari of red, embroidered with small floral figures worked in gold thread. There was no word of business until they were being served their after-dinner coffee. "It's good that you've come just now," she said. "There's something I want you to deliver to a friend of mine in the nebula. I'll not only pay my usual rates, but a nice bonus as well." She signaled to her servant and he departed, returning a moment later with a package about the size of a shoebox.

She took her time opening the package. Her eyes were brown tonight and they glittered with excitement. From the box she removed a carving in what appeared to be a form of jade. The figure was humanoid, with a bulbous head and tentacles growing from the lower aspects of the head. It had great leathern-looking wings suitable for a demon straight out of the hell of van Orst's ancestors. Van Orst thought he knew the name of the creature represented by that figure.

Meriem said, "I want you to take this to Aelon."

"The Witch of the Nebula?" said Orst, astonished. "Are you and she exchanging presents now?"


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"It's a peace offering. Our feud has gone on long enough. It interferes with our mutual businesses.”

Van Orst shook his head. His large stomach quivered with laughter. "By the gods you worship, Meriem. This is a day I never thought to see. Next you'll be calling a truce with Li Li Sheng and the Lustrum."

"One act of diplomacy at a time," she said coolly, placing the carved figure back into its box and taking elaborate care. "Besides, Li Li doesn't lead the Lustrum, she only works for it. There would be no point to being a friend of hers." She placed the lid back on the box. "Can you deliver this within a week?"

"That may be difficult," van Orst said. He sighed. "Do you remember Millicent? I'm afraid she's left me. Found herself a nice spacehand aboard a rival freighter; he’s decided to become a farmer on Klystra, and she could never resist a man like that. She took her leave of us yesterday. She's going to settle down and sacrifice that supple figure of hers by becoming a broodmare. She wants a dozen brats within as many years."

Meriem scowled. "I wish her well. Is she that important to your crew?"

"She ran my defense mechs. You can see why I'm reluctant to go back into the nebula without her. She could use the ship’s detectors more skillfully than any navigator I ever had, and with the weapons, she was inspired. I either need to replace her or train one of the others."

 

"Well, do your best," the priestess said and her voice barely suggested her displeasure. "But do try to have it there inside the week. I so want to speed up the truce process."

The next morning van Orst woke early and left the ship before breakfast. He went to the three or four hiring halls on the edge of the spaceport and left notices that he was looking for a new crewmember.

As he returned to the ship he found Beatrice leaning against the airlock door, waiting for him. Her arms were folded across her torso. As he came up the ramp her lips tightened into a smile and the dimples deepened She had dark brown hair and dark brown eyes and a sense of mischief that matched that of Esmond van Orst. So he smiled back.

"You find anyone?" she asked.

"The halls are teeming with unemployed space hands, most of them Hyborean or Valusian who have no experience of the technology we use."

"Have you considered training someone?" He knew that look in her eye. "Who do you have in mind?"

"Tylvia. She's interested in the job, too. She had Millicent show her a bit about it.”

"Well, she asks enough questions that she'd learn quickly if she listens to the answers. I wish I'd known about Millicent's plans a month ago." He


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  rubbed the tip of his nose. "It'll take a month to train Tylvia even if Millicent did show her the controls."

"So? The Lantern of Lost Worlds isn't going anywhere is it?"

"It's us going somewhere that matters." He told her about Meriem's commission.

"It's a stately bonus," he concluded. "But I have a feeling we won't collect it."

"Hey there," came a voice from outside the ship. "Can anybody point me to the captain?"

"I can," said Beatrice and pointed to van Orst.

The newcomer was a dark-haired woman with a square, strong face. She came partway up the ramp, stopped, and said, "Permission to come aboard, captain?"

"Granted," said van Orst.

She took her hat off and held it in both hands as she spoke. "I spoke with a former crewmember of yours yesterday. Blonde, animated face, all smiley like. A bit on the skinny side she was, to my way of thinking, but a look of strength about her."

"Millicent."

 


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"Her name was that. She was waiting to board a ship for Klystra. If I heard her rightly, she told me that you might be looking for someone to run your defense mechs."

"You know our technology?"

"Does this planet have bedbugs? I've worked on a dozen ships and half a dozen technologies in the last nine years. I think you'll find me right handy in a confrontation."

"Is that so? Well, come on in and show me what you know."

She dropped a bag inside the airlock and he led her back to Millicent's station.

Millicent had personalized the place with pictures of her family back on Olume, as well as reproductions of some paintings she liked taped to the bulkheads. They were gone and the feeling of her personality was gone. As a result the place seemed empty even though it was just a cubbyhole, filled with all the indicators and callibrators of the Adriash technology, as well as a chaos of wires and things clipped and soldered to other things, marking where Millicent had made a good many repairs to the ancient equipment. The newcomer slipped into the area ahead of the captain and slid comfortably into the control chair.

"With all these wires and things around here, I'd say the machinery's starting to get a bit quirky, eh, captain?" "

Well, I can't brag it's a new ship." He rubbed the tip of his nose. "What's your name, anyway?"

 

"Harry,” she said. “My parents had a sense of humor, they did."

"Okay, Harry. Show me what we got here."

With no hesitation, Harry started pointing to things and naming them. Van Orst stopped her a couple times and asked questions and, sure enough, she knew the answers. Finally van Orst said, "How soon can you stow your gear and be ready to go?"

"That's my gear in that duffle I left in your lock, Captain. Just show me where it goes."

“Good enough. You’ll find Beatrice in the airlock, waiting for a delivery. Tell her that box I left there is to go into the main cargo hold.”

“Aye, skipper.”

And so it was that evening that the Tempest left Pasquintain.

3

Normally Defense Mech merely advises navigation and navigation plots the course. But with the risks of voyaging in and around the Lantern of the Lost Worlds, and the sensitivity of the Adriash instruments, it was the habit of Captain van Orst to let his Defense Mech officer plot the course through the energy cloud. As they closed in on the nebula, he showed Harry the course he would prefer and then left her alone to check it. An hour later she came onto the bridge and handed him her revisions.

“There’s a fleet of ships at the point you’d prefer to enter,” she said.


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  “Pirates or maybe the Fellowship. I think it best to skirt them. Over here, though there’s something else. I can’t begin to guess what it might be from its energy patterns but this being the Lantern of Lost Worlds, I figure if you can’t tell what it is, you don’t invite it for supper. It might think you’re the entrée. So I say we ought to put in there.” She pointed to a place on the chart about another third of a light-year along.

“That’ll put us near the Rock Sargasso,” said the captain. He rubbed the tip of his nose. The Sargasso was an area near the edge of the nebula where a number of small moons, fragments of exploded planets, and asteroids, along with a few meteor clusters, had gotten themselves trapped centuries ago by the combination of particle winds and gravity currents there. Now they tumbled about and among one another like playful – and unpredictable – animals.

“That’s a tricky place to pass that closely,” he said.

She pointed at two other places on the chart. “Here. And here. Small fleets, squadrons really. Coming back from raids, is my guess, and likely to mind their own business so long as we don’t hand them any temptation. I’m also guessing we can use a bit of cover, and the Rock Sargasso springs to mind.”

“That’s not a bad point,” agreed the captain. “Damn me but there’s a lot of activity in this region all of a sudden. I hope a war’s not breaking out.”

“Heavy, yes,” she agreed. “But I don’t see any signs of them being interested in one another. I think it's okay – I just don’t like to take chances.”

 


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“How’s Tylvia coming?”

“She’s a fast study, and she’s apparently watched my predecessor closely. She can handle anything routine, I think.”

“Then let her watch the post until we’re about to enter the nebula, and you get some rest. I’ve got a feeling you have a long watch ahead of you.”

A few hours later they broke the skin of the nebula and plunged into the cloudmass. The black of space was replaced with a green-gray haze that glittered occasionally with electrical storms so huge that the pathway of their lightning could be plotted out and so avoided. Captain van Orst sat comfortably in the softly padded swivel chair and watched the instruments around him.

The screen of the proximity evaluator to his left produced an image that looked like crunchy peanut butter seen from the inside. He got somewhat more reassuring images from the mass detector and region maps in front of him.

The particle cloud around them was filled with objects. Boulders and most of the rocks were well to their right, clear of their path. There was little chance of collision with anything big, and the ship’s deflectors could take care of the small stuff. They had done this before, after all, and so far no disaster had ever resulted. But seeing the clutter of the Rock Sargasso there on the screen, and how little regard most of the orbits of those rocks seemed to pay to logic and math, was unsettling.

Captain van Orst felt that since they were passing closer than is usually

  recommended, it was his duty to be on station, if not actually on watch. But there was not much for him to do. Beatrice, who had a knack for organization and record keeping that eluded van Orst, did most of the ship’s paperwork and log entries. In fact everyone aboard the ship was first-rate and van Orst often suspected that for all he really did most voyages, he could go into a coma after takeoff and no one would even notice. He tried keeping himself awake by trying to recall the last time he’d eaten crunchy peanut butter. Then something went bump and he sat up in his chair.

It was a bump, just that, not a collision. Collisions made more noise and set off whooping alarms. Just to confirm his belief the ship hadn’t wrecked, he stuck his head out of his cubicle and called to Abigail, up in the pilot’s bucket, “What was that?”

“I don’t know,” she said with a toss of her honey-colored hair. “There’s nothing on the indicators.”

He came up behind her and peered over the shoulder at the instruments.

“Maybe something grazed us,” he said.

“Maybe,” Abigail admitted. “But if that’s the case, it should have shown up on the defense mechs, shouldn’t it?”

“Of course it should.”

She tapped the readout. “Well, it didn’t.”

He thought for a moment. “Could it have been something inside the ship?”


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“Sure it could have been. But I can’t imagine what.”

He plopped himself down in the signal bucket behind and to the left of Abigail and thumbed a com button. Harry answered on the other end.

“Did something just go bang against the hull?” he asked.

“Not a thing, skipper. If it had it would have shown up on my detectors. Heck, if anything came that close the defense mechs would have scrubbed it off the nose of the universe.”

“Well, check again. And if you find anything strange, give me a call, won’t you?”

He returned to his cubicle and was on the verge of deciding it was nothing when he felt the presence of someone. He looked around and saw Tylvia standing in the door. “Can I do something for you?” he asked.

“I’m not sure, Captain, that I should be bothering you like this. Did you hear a sound?”

“You heard it too?”

“Yes. Like a remora ship docking at one of the airlocks, it was. But why would a remora ship be way out here –?”

“Remora? Did you say remora?”

“Yes sir.”

 

It did sound like that. Remoras were shuttle ships capable of medium distance flight. They docked directly against an airlock instead of entering one like most shuttles or lifeboats. They were popular in the nebula because it was not a good idea to walk about outside a ship in just a spacesuit. The more he thought about it, the more certain he was that the bump had sounded like a remora ship docking.

“But that’s not why I’m here,” Tylvia continued. “After I heard it I thought it was strange, so I finally decided to go take a look, so I go to the defense mech station. But when I get there I can’t find Harry.”

“What?”

“Gone. Kaput. Not there. I check the readouts and sure enough there’s a lifeboat docked at one of our secondary airlocks.”

“What?” He said it louder this time.

“I’m trying to tell it to you the best I can,” she said. “Harry’s gone, the readout shows a remora on our hull and the strange thing is the display override has been rigged. The display shows the remora but the readout is jimmied so it doesn’t put out that particular bit of information to the rest of the ship.”

“Do you know enough about it to be sure of that?”

“Well, if what Millicent told me about it was true, I do. It’s a favorite trick of hers, you know. Or maybe you wouldn’t. She and that boyfriend of hers. Remember when we and the ship he was on were both orbiting around Voos? Well, I start to come up here to tell you everything when it occurs to me maybe I better alert Beatrice. So I go to her cabin but she’s not there.”


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“Beatrice and Harry are both gone?”

“It’s scary to think about, isn’t it captain? Fact is, Captain, the only people I can find aboard this ship is you, me, and Abby there.”

Abigail was looking back at them. She had already taken a gun from its locker and was strapping it on. She handed two others to van Orst and Tylvia. “I suppose that means you heard Tylvia’s story,” van Orst said. “She and I are going back to look around a bit more. You stay up here and run the ship and be careful who you let in.”

Harry’s station was empty, all right. Van Orst checked the readouts and, sure enough, they indicated a lifeboat docked at number four airlock. This did not look good. Neither Beatrice nor the other crewmembers were to be found in their cabins or at their stations.

Van Orst moved aft toward airlock four. The outer hatch was open and he could look into the empty shuttle boat. He was trying to decide what to do next when someone screamed from further aft.

Orst turned. “That didn’t sound like any of the girls,” Tylvia said.

“Let’s hope it wasn’t,” van Orst said and ran to investigate.

A door ahead of him flew open and someone burst from it. He raised his gun but didn’t fire. Harry ran toward him. Her face was pale and she was jibbering incoherently, a pure case of nearly frightened to death. She ran up to him and he had to grab her to stop her. She was shaking

 


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  furiously. She said, “Awful, it was awful. Never saw nothing like it. Tentacles! Wrapped round his throat, squeezed the life out of him. Came out of the thing’s face, they did.” She looked down and saw his gun. “Don’t shoot me. Shoot it. I surrender.”

He pushed her toward Tylvia. “Lock her up somewhere then come with me. Use that storage pantry.” Tylvia grabbed Harry by the arm and dragged her over to the pantry door. It was dogged shut. “We never lock these doors, do we, captain?”

“No,” van Orst said. He pushed past her while she held her gun against Harry’s cheekbone. He unfastened the door and opened it.

Inside he found the missing trio. They were conscious and seemed unharmed, though their arms and feet were tied. He bent down and quickly freed Beatrice, then Flora, while Beatrice released Theodora. He told Tylvia, “Lock Harry in there. Apparently she’s in on whatever went on here.”

“Can I tie her up, too?” Tylvia asked.

“No. It’ll take too much time. But if she gives you any trouble you can knock her over the head.”

“Yes sir, Captain. It’s a much better idea.”

“But only if she gives you trouble.”

Harry gave her no resistance and if Tylvia and the others were

  disappointed, they didn’t show it much. When the pantry was locked again, van Orst moved cautiously back to the main hold.

It was here he had left the statuette Meriem had given him to deliver to Aelon. The first thing he saw was the statuette, removed from its box and lying on the deck. Then, sticking out from behind some boxes, he saw – well, he supposed you could call them feet. He went for a closer look and he was glad the thing was dead because when something smelled like that, it was really good to toss it out an airlock.

The marks around the throat of the disgusting looking pirate appeared to be made by tentacles, all right. But they were definitely bigger than the marks you’d expect from that small, jade statuette.

4

Two weeks later, Esmond van Orst was back on Pasquintain, seated at a table across from Meriem. “Did you deliver my package on time?” she asked him.

The package was on the floor beside his chair. Since he had arrived early and a servant had ushered him in to wait for her, she didn’t know. He picked it up and set it on the table.

“Oh,” she said, with disappointment.

He said, “If you’ll be patient, I have a story to tell you.” Calmly and concisely, he told her. “Later on we more or less pieced it together. It wasn’t easy since Harry never seemed to get fully coherent. Seems that thing she was working with was the famous pirate Pulch.”


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“Famous? I never heard of him.”

“That makes two of us, though he certainly knew a lot about me and my ship. But he’ll never get any more famous, and we tossed him out the airlock. As for her, she was later identified as a known felon named Sadie the Ladie. I gather the statue had something to do with Pulch’s demise.”

“Oh, dear.”

“That suggests you see my point,” van Orst said. “On the one hand I’m really grateful that the thing was on my ship when Pulch and Sadie tried to rob us. On the other, I keep thinking about what would have happened if I had walked into Aelon’s palace and handed her that gift.”

“I suspect she would have met the same fate as Pulch.”

“Possibly, in which case, I would be standing over her dead body when her guards ran in. But the other possibility is that she would have seen through your plan and escaped somehow. She’s really very clever, you know. Second only to you in that department. And the most powerful witch in the galaxy.”

“So she says.”

“No matter. There is no question about her mean streak. I would be in deep trouble whichever direction the situation took.”

 

Meriem looked thoughtful a moment. Or maybe it was guilty.

He said, “Under the circumstances, I was thinking – ”

“That you had earned the bonus? Of course you have. I’ll have my secretary write the check right now. And in the future, when I want to show my esteem for Aelon, I’ll try not to involve you.”

“Perfect. That’s both the things I came here hoping to hear.”

“You have such a way about you,” she said. “How could I resist? Is it any wonder your crewmembers are all women? You’re such a charmer.”

“Relax, I have no intention of ever telling anyone else about this.”

“Good.” She stood up. “Oh, tell me, have you hired someone to replace Millicent?”

“Nah,” he said. “I’m giving that job to Tylvia. It’s a lot safer, and turns out she’s pretty good at it.”

“Well, then, I guess that concludes our business. But let me assure you, I will never do anything again that endangers you, your ship, or your crew.”

She sounded so sincere. He was convinced for almost five minutes that she really meant it.

The End

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