Alone and captive,

the wind-tunnels of the Rim:

no fit place for her.


Terry awoke in the middle of the night. The first dust-storm of the season was raging overhead. Even 20 meters below ground she could hear the wind whistling by the domes. She sat up, rubbing her eyes, and saw her sister Brandy standing by the foot of the bed. Terry's loom was visible through her projected body.

"Sorry, Terry, but it's Interplan from Juno. Professor Kelley. I thought you'd want me to put him through."

"Yes, please. Thanks, Brandy."

The woman's image faded, and the Professor was there, sitting in a wicker chair with his Faithful Beggar on his lap and more cats in the background. She was glad to see him, though she was saddened to see him beginning to look his age.

"Hello, Terry. It must be early morning there and I'm sorry if I woke you. This is the first spare moment I've had. I thought you'd want to know Shagrug's here."

"Thank God," she said, though the Professor would not hear her for at least half an hour.

"He turned up at my doorstep," he went on, "and admitted he'd run away to join the circus. He's looking for Karil and Loris, as if they needed him underfoot. Anyway, he's safe and sound, and if you don't mind, I'll keep him for a while. I could use his help. If you want me to send him home on the first ship headed that way, I will. Otherwise, I'll put him to work till Karil and Loris turn up. Okay?

"Don't be too angry with him," the Professor went on. "He's a good kid, if a little headstrong. Reminds me of some of my students. Two of them, in fact. Say goodnight, Faith."


"Take care of yourself, Terry. Love to the family. Good night."

The image faded and Terry was left alone in the dark.

Captain Solla, in his office nearby, watched the Professor's image fade, saw Terry go back to sleep. The previous resident had no doubt installed the cameras for the voyeuristic pleasure of watching the Martians' famous libertine couplings, but he was glad he had not removed them in his first wave of disgust. He leaned forward and touched a sensor on his desk. The door opened and a Lieutenant entered.


"Shagrug is at the Odysseus construction site near Juno. He's gone there to contact the Free Traders. We still have a few operatives there, don't we?"

"Yes, Sir. A few of the roustabouts are in our employ."

"Good. I want him watched. If he leaves, I want him followed."

"Yes, Sir."

The junior officer left, and Captain Solla sat for a moment, rubbing his temples. His headache had returned. He rose and stretched out on his bunk, covering his face with his forearm.

His temples pounded and his blood thundered in his ears, drowning out the shriek of the storm overhead. His breathing became laboured, and he licked his parched lips as the sweat began to pour off his body. He could feel the deck of the crawler shaking beneath him as it clattered over the Venerian surface, hear the scream of the sulphuric acid wind assaulting the bulkheads about him. Soon the refrigeration would fail entirely, and he would be roasted alive, another victim of Venus.

He opened his eyes, forced his weakened limbs to drag him across the searing deck and lift him into the pilot's seat. Through the meter-thick ports, he could see the hot sands racing the winds across the shimmering desert beneath lowering, sulphur-laden clouds. The sky was rent with lightning like tree-roots and a continuous roll of thunder drowned out the roar of the crawler's engine.

Better, he thought, to open the hatches and be instantly crushed. He reached for the air-lock controls, but a wave of dizziness overcame him. He collapsed and tumbled from the seat, tried to rise again, and collapsed once more.

He felt himself floating and looked down upon his body, saw his chest rise and fall in one last laboured breath and then become still.

It was over. He felt a profound sense of release, a deep sensation of peace. He rose through the hull, unhindered by the thick steel armour. The crawler lumbered on, clanking across the taffy-soft rocks, bearing his body away. He turned aside, drawn upward through the dense atmosphere. There was a cool, bright light, and a kind of tunnel. A luminous mist surrounded him. He sensed a presence nearby, a shimmering form, barely discernible.

"Mother?" he asked.

"Yes, Armand." She appeared not as he had last seen her--shrunken, wasted, comatose, cocooned in machinery--but as he liked to remember her. She wore her summer clothes, hair blowing in the gentle winds of Earth. His father appeared beside her, dressed in his uniform. He was tall once again, his stride purposeful, his palsy gone. They walked toward him through a mist-shrouded forest, a timeless landscape.

"This way, Son."

The couple walked arm in arm, like the lovers he remembered from his earliest years, before the arguments and beatings. Armand followed them down a long corridor. There was a humming through the walls, as of a billion voices echoing through eternity. They crossed an impossibly high, thin span across a chasm, in whose depths the stars of space burned in a black sky. They entered what appeared to be the stacks of a great library, yet it was not a library of books or discs, but of thoughts and memories. Images flickered across his vision as they passed.

He saw things.

He saw the Martian surface green with forest and plain, running with rivers, dotted with lakes. He saw great ships in orbit over a changed Earth, its continents altered and unfamiliar in outline. He saw the Earth and the Solar System, and the nearest stars linked by a web of interstellar starship-routes, a vast empire, peaceful and prosperous.

Before him now was a huge open area, in the centre of which was a bright light that blinded him. His mother and father stepped forward and disappeared into it, but when he tried to follow, something held him back.

He heard a voice--a blending of many voices, in which that of his mother and father were distinguishable.

"It is not time, Armand," they said. "Soon you will return to your body. It will be recovered, and you will be saved."

"But I do not wish to return. I wish to join you." His voice was his voice as a young child.

"You cannot. Your work is not completed."

He felt a profound sense of loss, but something entered into him, firming his resolve. "What am I to do?" he asked.

"You must return to Earth, to the corridors of power among the High Companies. Earth needs you. It must be protected. Nothing must be allowed to threaten it. Do you understand?"

"I understand."

His father's voice became dominant. "There are those who would squander Earth's resources on trivialities--playthings for scientists--when it desperately needs more ships to patrol the space-lanes. The forces of rebellion and anarchy must not hold the Solar System's resources for ransom."

"What do you mean? Are you referring to Professor Kelley? To the Odysseus Project? It seems harmless enough. Can it be a threat to the High Companies?"

"It is a greater threat than you know. A hotbed of subversion. It is the first in a series of projects that will enhance the prestige of Titan and the Outer Worlds. They will use that influence to foment revolt. The Martian Rebellion is only a beginning, a test, a training-ground for the real revolutionaries, who are still active, even within the High Companies themselves.

"You have seen one possible future--Earth triumphant, powerful, at peace, sole power in the Solar System, mistress of near interstellar space. But if the forces of anarchy have their way--Martian communism, Galilean libertarianism, Titanic liberalism--the resources of the Solar System will be stolen from their rightful owner, starvation and disease will devastate Earth, the Terran authority will fragment, and nation-states will rise again in war. The colonies will take sides in a struggle for power among themselves. An Evil Empire will rise in the Outer Worlds and attack Earth from space."

A cold wind swept over him. The sky was black with cloud, the sun barely discernible. He stood surrounded by bones and rotting carcasses. A few stunted plants were dry and brittle at his feet, poking up out of the grey dust. In the distance, vast glaciers crept down the slopes of barren mountains. The wind cut through him, chilling him to the bone, piercing him to the heart, filling him with loneliness and dread.

Suddenly the image vanished and there was only the cool, white light. And a sensation of love and concern that overwhelmed him.

"This is a turning point in History," his father went on. "The future you have seen can be prevented before it begins. If the Odysseus Project fails, Titan will lose face and the other colonies will turn back to Earth for guidance and support. Brave men like you, wearing the uniform of the Quasi-Police, instead of being reviled by the Outworlders, will be honoured and respected."

Solla was consumed by guilt. He had been a self-centred fool, a cynical doubter, an epicurean, a disgrace to his uniform and a disappointment to his beloved parents. But now he had a second chance. The light before him shimmered. He felt rather than heard his parents calling a farewell. The light contracted, receded, and became a simple ceiling-fixture. He was strapped in a bed, surrounded by white walls in a hospital room. Faces peered down at him. There were electrodes attached to his temples.

"How do you feel?" asked a man in a medical smock.

"I feel fine," Solla replied with some surprise.

"I believe you do, and that's the first coherent statement you've made in several weeks of raving nonsense. But your body has healed remarkably from your ordeal on the surface. You may get up now."

Captain Solla awoke. He was lying in a pool of sweat in his office at Margaritifer Five. He rose and fetched a glass of water for his parched throat, turned on the shower, looked at his haggard face in the mirror.

It had happened again, in exactly the same way--the headache, the exhaustion, the memories of his ordeal, the vivid dream. He felt strengthened, renewed, more determined than ever to bring the Odysseus Project to a halt.


On approach, the headquarters of Aeolian Shipping looked more like a playground than a great industrial centre. Solar sailers drifted by like huge kites. Fuel-spheres were tethered in collections like balloons. The residence- and office-colony spun like a mirrored carousel.

Karil and Loris rode the wrecker into dock to be checked out and issued their passes, while Atalanta was transferred to a tug and towed to the repair hangar. By the time they could join her she was already surrounded by welders, technicians, and robots. The great cathedral-like hangar echoed with the din.

"Are you Loris and Karil?" came a shout behind them.

They turned to see a young Asian man in Aeolian coveralls. He stuck out his hand. "I'm Ian So, in charge of your ship. I'm glad you're here. We can repair the superficial damage, but we can't proceed any further without your help."

"Jury-rigging." Loris grinned. "The former captain was a bit unorthodox in his..."

"It's not that, so much. We see a lot of that in freetraders. It's the protected circuitry. She won't give us access without your release."

"Sorry, I should have realized. Atty?"

"Yes, Loris?"

"Give Ian and his crew access to everything but first, second, and third priority circuits."

"Very well, Loris."

"Thanks for your help," Ian said. "You've sustained a massive systems-failure here. Far more than external damage would indicate."

"I know it."

"She's a real antique, too. More than jury-rigged. She's been re-designed several times. This former captain must have been a real character. Fortunately, we have everything we need in stock." He gestured toward an approaching robot, hauling a small train of crates.

Karil grabbed Loris' arm. The crates were clearly labelled FERONIA INDUSTRIES, VENUS COLONY.

"Wait a minute," said Loris. "You get your components from Venus?"

"Of course. They're pretty new on the market, but superior quality and cheap, too. Made by convict-labour, you know. They're being used more and more in the Outer Worlds. Your ship was full of them."

"Really? Can I see one."

Ian looked puzzled. But he fetched a circuit-box from a nearby bin and handed it to Loris. "This is a standard 27-6-18B, a driver-system laser-ignition package. Fused out in the blast."

"Can you open this up under a microscope so we can take a look inside?"

"Not possible. It's totally fused. And even if it wasn't, it's factory-sealed with a tamper-destruct. For the manufacturer's protection. Everyone does it. Industrial espionage, and all that."

"There's no way to find out what's inside one of these things?"

"That's right. It would erase all its data and self-destruct. Why?"

"Let me see Atty's parts manifest."

Ian had it displayed on the computer screen. Loris studied it for a moment. "Atty, you want to take a look at this?"

"Every component manufactured by Feronia has been fused or shorted out," she said. "The only components not of Feronian design that failed were those directly affected by the blast."

"Tell me something," Loris said. "Do you use Feronia components extensively in the solar freighters?"

"Does Ganymede have ice? They're designed to be as simple and cheap and reliable as possible. A simple robot astrotracker, a few guy-motors, a beacon... You program a destination and let them find their way home."

"What about a solar yacht? The kind leased by hotels."

"The same. Plus, life-support, automatic mayday, communications... They're knocked together from kits, most of them. I built one myself once. These days, the only solar-sailers that are designed and made from scratch are the ones in the Olympics, or the Titan's Cup."

"And the robots that control Jovian Fuels mining aerostats?"

"I told you. Everybody buys from Feronia. Especially here, in the Galilean. This is a rough part of space. Equipment needs to be repaired all the time, and Feronia makes it easy. And their product is extremely reliable. Guaranteed."

"Are they, now? Tell me, have you ever run across a massive systems-failure like this before? Say, on a solar freighter?"

"A failure like this?" Ian laughed. "Well, it would be hard to say, wouldn't it?"

"What do you mean?"

"A total systems-failure? You'd never see the ship again, probably. Couldn't even track it. So how would you know?"

"Thank you very much, Ian. You've been a bigger help than you think. Now, I have a favour to ask."

"You're the boss. I've been told to follow your instructions to the letter."

"Good. Don't use any of these Feronia components."


"You heard me. Nothing. Not a single sensor. Not a single wire-connector. Not a toilet-fan switch. Nothing. If you've got components by Titanic Industries, or Galilean, use them, despite the cost. Or anybody else, reliable or not. Or build your own. Atty will help you and so will I."

"It's going to take a lot longer."

"I don't care. This is important to me, Ian."


Karil and Loris finally appeared before the Aeolian Board--a dozen men and women sitting about a monumental crescent-shaped conference table. Many of the figures betrayed by their semi-transparency that they were present in projection only, but since there was little delay in their responses as they spoke sotto voce among themselves, Karil assumed their bodies were not far away--elsewhere in the Galilean system, no doubt.

Finally, the Chairman looked up. "You are the former Free Traders known as Loris and Karil, presently employed by Professor Kelley on the Odysseus Project?"

"We are."

"Very well. Please explain why you have brought this proposal before the Board."

"You have our written report before you and have already authorized repairs to our ship."

"I would like to hear the proposal from your own lips, and make sure you understand all the possible ramifications, before we authorize the next phase."

Loris sighed and narrated most of the events following the first disappearance of one of Professor Kelley's shipments. The board listened attentively.

"This is a serious charge, Miss--uh--Loris. Feronia Industries is a major player in Belter trade. If someone in Madame Feronia's employ is sabotaging free Galilean trade in the Belt, it's a matter of some importance."

"That's precisely why we need proof."

The chairman glanced down at the screen before him. "It says here you are a former agent of Galilean Security."

"Some years ago, yes."

"Then you are well aware of the sort of evidence required."

"Yes, Sir. We'd pretty much have to catch them red-handed. That's what we propose to do."

"Well, let me see if I understand your request. The Zephyr, which left here five months ago, is now entering the part of the Belt in which the disappearances have taken place. You believe the hijackers' headquarters is in an orbiting colony or uncharted asteroid in that area. You propose to rendezvous with the Zephyr, place a human observer aboard, and retreat to the edge of detection range. If the ship is hijacked, your observer hopes to record the incident, summon you to seize the alleged perpetrators, or even gain access to their headquarters."

"That's correct. Karil here, has some experience with solar sailers."

"This strikes me as a risky proposition. It appears the perpetrators have already tried to kill both of you. I'm certain our insurance does not cover such a situation. In fact, the mere presence of a human being aboard a robot-controlled..."

"We're perfectly willing to sign any waivers necessary," Karil said. "You will not be responsible to our employer or to our next of kin."

"I see. Your belief in your captain is remarkable. I don't believe there is anyone I would trust to pull me out of such a situation."

"There's a great deal at stake here," Loris said. "We think elements highly placed in Feronia Industries hope to bankrupt Professor Kelley and seize the Odysseus. As you know, the project is entirely funded and run by the Outer Worlds, and I'm sure you can see the propaganda value for the High Companies if it can be shown that we are incapable of completing such a project on our own or protecting our own interests from criminal activity in the Belt.

"Karil and I are still considered Free Traders. We are independent agents, answering only to the Professor, and have no direct connection with Aeolus or any other Galilean company. The hijackers are outside the law and the High Companies will naturally disavow any connection with them. Being outside the law ourselves, we can deal with them as we like. All you have done is to give us permission to board one of your ships to guard our own employer's cargo--a reasonable request. If you help us, you'll be protecting your own investment without having to take responsibility for our actions."

"You present a compelling case, Captain. We have suffered some serious insurance losses because of these hijackings, and the reputation of Aeolian Shipping has been sullied. You must realize that we cannot protect you or help you in any way once you are in the Belt. If you run afoul of the High Companies there, in independent space, we can do little but lodge the usual ineffective protests."

"We understand perfectly."

"Gentlemen? Ladies? Any further comment?"

"None, Mr. Chairman."

"Then I move we grant this petition. Second?"

"I second."

"Please register your vote with the computer. The motion is carried. Captain, I will see that you are provided with everything you need."

"Thank you."

"Good luck to you, Loris. And especially to you, Karil. The robot will see you out."


Karil and Loris were in the canteen at the hangar, taking a break. They sat before the great picture-port that overlooked the factory loading-area, glancing out occasionally as a half-dozen tugs nudged a chemical-barge into position for offloading.

"So, the tamper-destruct," Karil said, "can be triggered by more than just an attempt to open the system. It can be triggered remotely, by sending the proper code. You can shut down as many systems as you like, or even all of them, rendering a ship inoperative, incommunicado, and defenceless."

"Or you can instruct the robots aboard to do it for you, as they did with Aerostat Five," Loris added.

"And Feronia's reputation is safe, because a ship in that state would probably never be seen again. Just another mysterious disappearance in space."

"And even if it survived, or was found, you could cover your actions with a diversionary tactic. You thought the systems on your yacht were damaged by the collision. We thought Atty's systems had failed because of the explosion. It makes you wonder how many ships lost in space the last few years have actually been hijacked."

Karil stared out the window. "I can't say I'm looking forward to climbing into another solar-sailer."

"We can find some other way, you know."

"I can't see any other way. Besides, you and Atty will be right there."

"As close as we can be without being detected. Ian's working on a tracer now."

Karil was distracted by the sight of the chemical barge, just now being nudged into its berth. On the side was printed:

JUBILEE CITY. The shuttles beside it were actually scout-ships, and among them was one numbered 15.

"I have to go back and see to Atty's supplies," Loris said. She had not noticed the barge.

"I'll finish my coffee," Karil said.

Loris put her hand on his and left. In a moment, after hesitating several times, Karil rose and went down to the dock. He would just look at Slava from a distance, he thought, and decide whether to speak to her. If yes, he would decide what to say at the time. After that, he would decide whether it was a horrible mistake, or not.

The shuttle-pilots glanced up from their work as they saw him. They turned to each other and pointed him out. Karil stopped in his tracks; yes, he decided, it was a horrible mistake. Before he knew it, three of them were running in his direction, armed with huge wrenches.


"Loris," Atty said. "Karil is in a fight."

"A fight? Where?"

"According to the report, on the loading dock. The fight appears to involve several citizens of Jubilee City."

"Oh, shit!" Loris said. She started down the ramp, only to find Karil stumbling toward her, pushing a man in a pilot's uniform ahead of him. The man was stumbling, too, and his nose was bleeding profusely.

"Jesus, Karil..." Loris began.

Karil pushed the man into the ship; he stumbled and sprawled on the deck, wiping his bloody nose with his hand. Karil was mussed, but apparently unharmed.

"Loris," Atty said, "the man is injured. You must see to him immediately. Karil, I must protest..."

"It's only a bloody nose, for God's sake. You should see the other guys." He pointed to Loris. "Tell her what you told me."

"Fucking Free Traders. Thieves! Murderers! Slavers!"

"What are you talking about?" Loris said. "Hold still." She opened a first-aid kit and began swabbing his nose.

"The good people of Jubilee can swear a blue streak when they want to, can't they?" Karil snorted.

"Shut up, Karil." Loris snapped. "Now, what's this all about? We haven't done anything to you."

"No? What about seducing our women and selling them into prostitution?"

"We've done no such thing. We haven't been anywhere near Jubilee since we left. We've been kind of busy, actually. Are you talking about Slava, by any chance? Hold still, damn it."

"She's gone. Quit her job as pilot, packed up, and took ship with the ore-traders for Ganymede. She's gone to look for you, damn it!" He struggled to his feet and started for Karil, but Loris grabbed him and put him back on the floor, gently but with extreme firmness.

"Jesus, Karil. What did you say to her?"

"I told her being a spacer was a lonely and dangerous business and she'd be better off..."

"Yeah, and I'll bet you made it sound romantic as hell, too. Listen to me!" she said to her patient. "You're wrong about so many things I don't know where to start. First of all, you're fucking crazy to take on Karil, no matter how many friends you have. You're lucky you're not all dead. Second, it's not Karil's fault what Slava did. He was flirting with her, sure, but anywhere else in the Solar System a girl her age would know how to deal with that; if your society wasn't so conformist and repressive, girls like her wouldn't be running away to join the Free Traders, would they? Sit down and shut up! Third, she's old enough to be free to do what she wants, so we don't have to lift a finger to help her, but we will."

The man sniffed and wiped his bloody hands on his uniform. "You will?"

"Of course, we will. The thought of Little Miss Sugar Cookies lost in the Rim District makes my blood run cold. Atalanta would make us go find her, even if we didn't want to. And if anybody can track her down in that place, it's Karil and me. So, go to the infirmary, then go back and tell your friends that we'll find her and bring her back to you. If she wants to go, that is. My guess is, after getting a load of the real Ganymede instead of the romantic fantasy she's got in her head, she'll be happy..."

"She can't come back now."


"We're on a schedule. We're leaving orbit in a matter of hours. Besides, nobody's going to want her after she's been ruined."


"We know what that place is like. Who's going to want to...?"

Loris picked him up and threw him off the ship. The technicians watched in astonishment as he rolled down the ramp and came to a stop among the welding equipment, then they turned away and went back to work.

"Atty, how long have we got?" Loris demanded.

"Ian says it will be several days before I'm spaceworthy again."

"Fine. We can take the transport. Let's go."

"Loris..." Karil began.

"But we're not keeping her. There are places where she'll be safe. Callisto has many fine upstanding communities. It says so in the brochure. She's a good pilot. She can get a job. A nice room in a rooming house. Meet a nice guy. Not like you. Let's go."

Loris stopped at the bottom of the ramp and turned to the pilot, who was just struggling to his feet. The man backed up in terror and found himself up against a workbench.

"Here's something else you can do," she said. "Send Slava's picture to Galilean Security. Tell them she's a missing person. You got that?"

The man nodded.

"Good. See to your nose. It's bleeding again."

Loris and Karil left the hangar.


Slava stood in the centre of Galileo Plaza, staring at her surroundings in amazement, with her duffel on her shoulder. Throngs of people passed her--every conceivable shape and colour, every conceivable gravitational gait, every conceivable state of dress and undress. She had been there for several minutes and no longer blushed to see bare-breasted women or men with exposed buttocks, but the cyborgs still frightened her, with their gleaming metal limbs and camera-lens eyes. After the astonishing sight of coming in for a landing on the icy surface of a planet with an actual horizon, this crowded cavern with level upon level of mezzanines and balconies was all a bit overwhelming.

"Can I help you, Miss?" It was a pleasant, middle-aged man speaking--well-dressed and well-groomed, with a dazzling smile and a twinkle in his eye. She hesitated.

"You seem a little lost," he went on in a gentle voice. "Ganymede can be a bit frightening the first time. You've never been here before, have you?"

Slava shook her head.

"Well," the man said, "I've lived here all my life and I could probably direct you to your destination, if you like."

"I'm looking for the Rim," said Slava, with a sigh of relief.

"The Rim. Now that's a pretty rough place for a girl like you, isn't it?"

"That's where the Free Traders dock, isn't it?"

"Yes, it is. But they're generally pretty tough people and can take care of themselves. A lot of other people live there too, and some of them aren't very nice. Is there someone in particular you're looking for?"

"Karil. And Loris."

"You mean, Ali Karil Stilbon? The poet?"

Slava's face lit up. "I never heard his last name. You know him, then?"

"Of course I do. I've known him for years. I fought in the Martian Rebellion with him. But I don't think he and Loris are in Ganymede right now. Do they expect you?"

"Well, no. It's kind of a surprise."

"I see," said the man in a kindly tone of voice. "And does your family know you're going to a place like the Rim all by yourself? Won't they be worried?"

Slava felt perfectly able to unburden herself to the man. "I don't have any family. My parents and my only sister died years ago, in a shuttle-crash. I was raised as an orphan by the colony."

The man's face was the picture of sympathy. "Oh, I'm so sorry. There's no-one to miss you, then, now that you've run away from home?"

Slava's face lit up in astonishment. "How did you know that?"

He chuckled in a kindly way. "Why, I see it all the time. It's gotten so I can spot runaways like you from halfway across the square. Usually," he said, laughing, "they're pretty tough cookies, though they always need help of one sort or another. Why don't I take you to see some of Karil's friends? You'll like them. They're very nice. And you can stay there until he turns up."

"Oh, thank you," Slava said. She no longer felt the slightest bit of fear.


The Rim District's reputation was well-deserved, but it was not the worst part of Ganymede; the pimps and criminals kept a kind of order there, the spacers provided a certain rough protection, and Galilean Security sometimes put in an appearance, to let the denizens know who was in charge. But, deep in the bowels of the complex there was a place called The Wind Tunnel which lacked even these picaresque amenities. Caverns carved in the ice there provided air-circulation for all of Ganymede City, and there was always a wind blowing. Huge fans were everywhere, rotating according to the prevailing breezes, and in their flickering light dwelt the forgotten of Ganymede--little better than vermin to the good burghers of the libertarian society above, but always able to escape the occasional house-cleaning by vanishing into the maze of tunnels about them.

On rare occasions, however, a somewhat better class of criminal would gather there, making their way down the ventilation shafts to engage in business for which even the dim illumination of the Rim Tunnels was too much like the light of day. A group of the most notorious pimps, pickpocket ringleaders, slavers, and providers of special entertainment in the Rim was gathering in a small room, lit only by the red glow of emergency lighting, flickering off the blades of a great fan. On a makeshift stage at the front of the room stood a well-dressed and pleasant-looking middle-aged man known to all, yet completely anonymous, as everyone in the room knew him by a different name. Beside him was a large burlap sack, tied up with cord. From time to time, it would move, or a tiny whimpering sound would issue forth, and the man would kick it.

"Gentlemen," he said, when all the invitees were seated, "this evening I have something special for sale. I know you are all busy men, so I won't waste time trying to describe something for which no description is adequate, and whose rare qualities can be judged at a single glance."

He untied the cord and opened the top of the bag, reached in, and pulled up Slava by the hair. She stumbled to her feet, awkwardly, and the rough burlap slid down her smooth body to gather at her ankles. She wore only a gag and the cord that bound her wrists behind her.

There was a moment of silent appreciation, and then the bidding began, and became hot and heavy quite quickly. Slava's wide-eyed look of terror as she glanced about the room, and her whimpers of fear as she understood her situation served to make the bidding even more frenzied. Finally, the shouting was over; no-one could top the bid of a certain entertainment mogul who catered to wealthy Terran tourists. He had just finished counting his credits into the auctioneer's hand and was about to seize his wide-eyed prize when another figure rose from the crowd.

"Excuse me," he said. "I would like to make a better offer."

The auctioneer looked up, saw a dark and bearded stranger dressed in spacer's leathers and a long cloak. For a moment, the auctioneer hesitated--to accept another offer after bidding had closed would be bad for business, but if the offer was big enough, he could live with that. Best to find out what the offer was, while pretending not to consider it.

"Now what kind of offer," he laughed, "could be better than this?" He shook the credits in his hand.

"My offer has two parts," the stranger said, turning to face the crowd while putting his back to the wall. "One, the Free Traders will continue to patronize your establishments. Two--" He shrugged off his cloak and laser-pistols appeared suddenly in both hands. "--most of you will leave the room alive."

Another man stood up and pointed a finger at the auctioneer. "You didn't tell us she was Ship's Pet! Do you think we're crazy?"

The auctioneer glanced about in fear carefully masked by his open smile. "Gentlemen, Gentlemen, I assure you I had no idea. Here, I refund your money." He stuffed the credits in the bidder's hands. "And you, take your Pet." He shoved Slava in Karil's direction, but she tripped on the folds of burlap about her feet and began to fall off the stage. Karil shoved his pistols into his holsters and darted forward to catch her in his arms.

As a man, the entire crowd of onlookers turned and rushed for the port. It slid open before them, and Loris strode into the room. In her arms was a rather large concussion-rifle, which she cocked with an extremely loud click. The rush to the exit ceased immediately. A dozen Galilean Security agents poured from the tunnel behind Loris and proceeded to take names.

Karil looked up to see the auctioneer slipping into a ventilation shaft behind the stage. He ignored him, as he removed Slava's gag and bonds and wrapped her in his cloak. She fell sobbing into his arms.

The auctioneer ran down his escape-tunnel, glancing back to see that there was no pursuit. Breathing a sigh of relief, he punched open a port at the end, and as the hatch rolled aside, giving him access to the next corridor, he felt the cold steel of a stun-gun on his forehead.

"Lieutenant Soon," the man said, "Galilean Security."

The stun-gun charged up with a whining sound that made the auctioneer's blood run cold. "You have the right to remain alive," said the Lieutenant.


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