Friday, March 15, 2013


Note from Allan: Here are two delicious little tales from Frank Gessel, a great friend and a long-time Sten fan. They feature Chetwynd, a tough as steel rogue Sten first met on a Than prison planet in Sten #3 - The Court Of A Thousand Suns. He encountered him again in Sten #5 -Revenge Of The Damned, where Chetwynd aided Sten and Alex in their fight against the Tahn. Frank has this to say about himself: "The Author is a retired Firefighter who has been a science fiction fan since first learning to read and has been a STEN fan for many years. A native of Ohio, he spends his winters in Florida enjoying the sun and is often been known to say that “the only ice he wishes to see is that in a cold drink.”


¶By Frank Gessel

¶The Merry Widow was three weeks out of Toth with still another week of flight before making planet fall on Heath, and in a particularly empty part of space, when JJ, a Spindar and Chetwynd’s oft times business partner and drakh hot navigator noticed the sensor anomaly about three points to starboard and about 250,000 kilometers distant.

Spindars were notorious for being overly curious and he immediately busied himself, all four arms working in sync at the control board, to adjust course and investigate what shouldn’t by rights be showing on the screen.

¶Chetwynd awoke to the change from AM2 drive to Yukawa, but before he could tap the com and enquire, JJ was already calling him to the bridge. Fearing the worst, he quickly rolled out of his rack, slipped into his ship’s shoes and raced forward from the tiny captain’s stateroom.

¶In prior years he had never dreamed of being owner and captain of his own starship. Admittedly, the Merry Widow wasn’t all that much by most standards. Not quite big enough to be classified as a small commercial freighter but larger than an intersystem cargo carrier. She was just large enough for the smuggling trade and it didn’t take a large crew to manage her. She could operate just fine with a crew of two and even by a single person in a pinch.

Chetwynd had acquired her in a card game at the K’ton club from a Tahn General who had seized her from an unfortunate soul who soon after was past caring. He was proud of his ship, was meticulous in her care and perhaps at times worried too much.

¶Chetwynd, one-time labor organizer and thorn in the side of the Tahn Lords, occasional bully, prisoner on Dru, later a foreman in the Tahn war industry, smuggler, and now a gun runner, had done well under the Imperial occupation of Heath after the war. Some of that was no doubt the result of his friendship with Sten, as the Imperials often seemed to look the other way regarding his smuggling activities.

Developing a close association with Jon Wild had helped as well, as Sr. Jon was a highly successful smuggler and had become famous or infamous depending on a beings point of view.

This latest trip to supply surplus Tahn weapons to the rebels on Toth had been highly profitable and had netted Chetwynd many credits, as well as a hold full of Imperium X, in finished rolls, that would fetch a good price on Heath. Naturally, any change in flight plan was a cause for concern and he wasn’t in the best mood as he quickly headed for the bridge.

¶Upon arriving, and before he could open his mouth, JJ pointed to the main screen. There was what looked to be a derelict ship just a few kilometers to starboard, and a very odd looking ship at that. It was old, very old, maybe five hundred years or more by her design, and damaged in a way that seemingly defied reason. From fore to aft, one side looked to be fairly intact while the other half was holed and pockmarked, looking much like a sponge.

Chetwynd had seen a number of battle damaged ships, but nothing that had ever looked like this and he wondered what kind of weapon or natural disaster could have caused it.

¶“Shall I ease us alongside”, JJ asked.

“Yeah mate,” Chetwynd replied, “but no closer than about fifty meters and match us up with what looks to be an intact hatch there, just aft of the bridge section. I’m going to suit up while you do, and get ready for an EVA.”

¶Chetwynd hated doing EVA’s. He hated working in zero G where there was no feeling of up or down and he never could quite get the hang of using the little propulsion units on the suit to adjust his velocity and needlessly worried about them malfunctioning, leaving him floating forever in the void.

Just as JJ called down that they were positioned, he attached the carbineer on one end of the hundred meters of tether line to a stanchion and cycled the airlock open. Taking a couple of deep breaths to steel his nerves, he pushed off toward the derelict's lock, minutes later hitting the hull of the old ship a little harder than he would have wished, but not bad enough to leave more than a few bruises.

Cursing quietly, he slowly maneuvered toward manual control to open the hatch. Minutes later he sighed in relief when his end of the tether line was secured to the inside of the hatch, and he flipped on his helmet spot and started working his way toward the bridge.

¶The bridge was a shamble of pockmarked steel and small holes open to space as though someone had gone crazy with a Willygun. Seated in the pilot’s chair was a space suited figure. As Chetwynd moved forward for a closer examination he noted that the suit had several emergency patches on it. Clearly the pilot had not totally escaped whatever it was that had hit the ship.

Looking through the faceplate at the mummified being it was impossible to tell what race the pilot had been, but it was obvious that he had a small amount of time to prepare a little before the end came. Clutched in the corpse’s arms was the Imperium X-shielded black box that should contain all the information on how the ship came to its end as well as the computer log.

Carefully prying it from the dead beings hands, he took a last look around the bridge before going aft to see if there was anything worth salvaging.

¶An hour later he was back aboard the Merry Widow, and JJ came into the locker room just as he was stripping off the last part of his suit.

“Anything worthwhile over there,” JJ asked?

“Yeah,” Chetwynd said.” “Four Imperium X fuel pods that indicate full and I’ve got the black box and log.”

“Lots of luck with the black box”, JJ said. “As old as that ship is it probably won’t be compatible with our computers.”

“Just the same, I’ll look into it on my next watch,” Chetwynd said. “In the meantime, you can have the dubious honor of getting the fuel pods over here. I’ve had enough space walking to last me awhile,”

JJ laughed, his body rippling in multi-colored humor. He could never understand why Chetwynd got so nervous about a little EVA.

¶The following watch with the ghostly looking derelict hanging in space just a kilometer away and JJ soundly asleep in his rack, Chetwynd brought the old black box onto the bridge and began the delicate task of trying to download it into the ship’s computer. Many hours later, and after much swearing to help the job along, he finally managed to access the data and began to read. A little while later he put a computer lock on the data, placed the black box in the captain’s safe and sent a vid to Jon Wild.

¶At shift change, he asked JJ to plot their exact position, the direction that the derelict had come from, then put them on course for  Sr. Jon’s crooked little world. JJ's scales turned red with surprise and asked what was up, as they had been on course for Heath.

Chetwynd just smiled and cited captain’s prerogative and that Heath would have to wait pending urgent business with  Sr. Jon. JJ grumbled a little, but he had been with Chetwynd long enough to know better than to question once the boss had made up his mind.

¶Every age has a haven where those who are beyond the law or just riding the fence between what is legal and illegal can go to enjoy a respite, fence stolen goods or conduct the buying and selling of contraband items. Three thousand years or so earlier there was a similar place on old Earth named Port Royal, Jamaica. These days it’s Sr. Jon’s world, a moon orbiting around a rather unattractive gas giant in the goldilocks zone of a small G type star that has only a Galactic catalogue number and is well off the normal shipping lanes. The moon itself has an E type atmosphere and is primarily a water world with one small continent and several archipelagos of islands.

The single continent boasts a small spaceport, a couple of shipyards and all the amenities for deep space sailors to let off steam. Chetwynd was looking forward to a little of that after conducting business with his old friend Jon.

¶Wild’s vid came in shortly after Chetwynd started his next watch, and he seemed to be somewhat perplexed. “You say that you want to land in my personal shipyard for a refit?” he asked.

Chetwynd nodded and said that the need was great or he wouldn’t have asked. Wild opened his mouth to enquire further, thought about it a moment and gave Chetwynd the coordinates, saying that he would inform his yard master. Reading between the lines, he knew better than to ask, especially on an open channel. He trusted Chetwynd as much as he trusted anyone and knew that the answer would come in time.

¶A week later, Chetwynd opened the door to Sr. Jon’s rather plain outer office to be greeted by a green- skinned woman of a race that he was unfamiliar with. He thought that she was rather attractive until she smiled, showing her pointed incisors, and then he noticed the bat like ears. Upon giving his name, she quickly ushered him through to see Sr. Jon and closed the private office door after him.

Jon Wild had done well for himself since the Tahn war and his office reflected that. The walls were wainscoted in Antarian teak, a bar of Corellian marble running part way across one and the plush crimson Denebian living carpet seemed to almost caress Chetwynd’s feet as he crossed the room. Behind a rather large desk of Vegan melt wood, that subtly changed colors every minute or so, sat Sr Jon, who quickly came around to shake hands with him and greet his old friend.

¶A little later, Sr. Jon laid down the fiche that Chetwynd had given him and remarked, “Interesting, very interesting. Of course we can do the refit that you want and reading between the lines, I can understand the need for secrecy. It will be expensive and I don’t understand the need for it, but I smell a profit to be made. I’m not going to ask what you have in mind but I’ll offer you a deal. Ten percent of the take and you can have the refit and all the fuel that you need.”

Chetwynd paused for a few minutes as he didn’t want to seem too eager and then said, “Done,” and they shook hands on it.

Wild told him that he would have his secretary draw up the contract and that work could probably commence the following morning and take about two weeks. He then crossed to the bar and poured them both shots of Stregg.

“Here’s to crime,” he said, and they spent the rest of the evening telling tall war stories about the Imperial/Tahn conflict over a good meal and many more drinks.

¶Black Toad, the pirate was from Arcturis Five and every bit as ugly as his name implied. His real name, like that of his world and race, was unpronounceable to nearly all beings. Years earlier, one of his victims said that he looked like a big black toad. Black Toad took it as a compliment, kept the name and gave that being a quick death.

At the moment his large eyes were staring at the chained captain of the freighter he had just captured while his first mate and two of his crew were stuffing the last crying, struggling member of the freighter’s crew into a missile tube.

He nonchalantly pressed the firing button that would eject the hapless being into space. Then in a croaking voice addressed the tearful, shivering captain, “Make chase you long, not good, not smart, die you hard, fun now I have.”

As his grey spots changed to bright orange with anticipating pleasure, he picked up the plasma cutter, pressed the ignition stud and smiled. The screaming went on for a very long time.

JJ awoke in the small hotel room hung over with a splitting headache and in a general state of irritation. He rolled out of his null G sleeping pad, scuttled lightly over to the small refrigerator unit, and grabbed a narcobeer.

Clottin Chetwynd, he thought, try as he might, he couldn’t get the man to tell him what the reason for the refit was or what was being done. Of course, if JJ had stopped to think about it he would have realized that when he was in his cups, he had a tendency to talk too much. Chetwynd had just told him to take a couple of weeks off and enjoy all the amenities that Jon’s world had to offer, but to report in from time to time and let him know where he was.

Last night he had tied on a good one in the company of a couple of good natured Psaurans, one of whom seemed to be a little too much interested in why the Merry Widow was in Wild’s private yard. What the clot, he thought, there was nothing that he could have told them anyway!

¶ Sr. Jon was as good as his word and exactly two weeks to the day his yard master sat down at Chetwynd's breakfast table and announced that the refit was finished. Another day to stock fuel, water and food as well as the special equipment that Chetwynd had ordered and they would be ready for space.

That evening, Chetwynd made the rounds of the bars that JJ favored, located him in a rather rowdy dive and told him to sober up and report to the yard masters office in the morning. A day later the Merry Widow lifted off on Yukawa drive bound for a small cluster of red dwarf stars and long dead worlds just outside the rim of the Galaxy. A little later a green-skinned woman on a very private com sent out a short staccato burst of coordinates, trajectories, velocity capabilities and tonnage estimates to a dead black Tac ship orbiting just outside Sr. Jon’s star system.

¶Black Toad looked at the nondescript grey man on his vid screen, re-read the printout below and nodded. Yes, he thought, this might make a good prize if an intercept trajectory could be plotted. He thanked the man, told him that he would receive payment in the usual way and switched off.

It could turn out to be a long chase, but what matter. Much of the shipping this far out toward the galactic rim was armed or escorted these days and a lone and relatively unarmed ship like this would be easy prey. A little over an hour later his navigator handed him a fiche and informed him that it would indeed be a long chase and that they wouldn’t match orbits until they were within the star cluster, about a sixteen day trip at three quarters velocity. Black Toad told him to set course but keep velocity at three quarter. That far out an engine failure could be a real problem and the Black Arrow’s engines were slightly past due for an overhaul as it was.

¶Watch on, watch off, watch on and watch off. Planet bound beings never quite realize how boring a long trip through space can be with nothing but routine course corrections and engine adjustments to address, vid books to read or computer games to play. This trip the usual chore of making space rats palatable had been eased up a bit by the creative and delicious supplies that Sr. Jon had thoughtfully provided from his personal warehouse and Chetwynd had been enjoying playing chef.

JJ hadn’t been the very best of company thus far. The Spindar had been under the assumption that the refit would entail an upgraded weapons system or a new ship’s computer and had been disappointed at the lack of either. He had taken little note of the modifications that had been made and was more than a little miffed when Chetwynd refused to give any details.

Oh well, he thought, in two more days if luck holds JJ will be one very happy being and understand his reluctance to say more. He was just musing on whether to start another game of 3-D chess with the computer when a telltale on the nav console began blinking.

Turning quickly to the main console and stepping up the magnification on the forward screen he noticed nothing amiss and then he caught the vaguest hint of a moving dot on the aft screen. He blinked and then blinked again and sure enough there was something there and coming their way.

¶Chetwynd admitted to himself that he wasn’t all that proficient in plotting courses and trajectories and reached for the com. A few minutes later a rather grumpy JJ was busy peering at the nav comp’s screen and working the numbers. Shortly, he looked up and told Chetwynd that it was definitely a ship and that while it was still many parsecs away, if it held its present course and velocity it would roughly intersect them about the time that they entered the Red Dwarf star cluster.

He looked back at the screen for another minute and then said, ”Yeah, it looks like we’re gonna have company!”

¶“Drakh, drakh, drakh”, Chetwynd exclaimed, “Just what we don’t need. Assuming that this clot doesn’t have our best interests in mind, and knowing the exact position of our target star and planet, can you give me a better indication of where we will be when that ship gets to within heavy weapons range? Assuming also that he doesn’t change velocity and that we can maintain some degree of lead?”

“Give me a few hours,” JJ said, “and I’ll give you all the parameters and options.” He then turned back to the nav computer.

¶At the end of the watch, JJ walked into the galley, poured himself a cup of Helvenian coffee, handed Chetwynd a fiche and began to give him the results.

“The good news,” he said, “assuming the clot is a pirate who wants our ship and even if he goes to full power he still has to decelerate on Yukawa drive the same as we do. We should be able to reach the planet a full twenty minutes before he does, although I don’t know what good it’s going to do us.

"The bad news is that I was able to get an identity on that ship and according to Jane’s it’s a Tahn light cruiser."

Well that clinches it, Chetwynd thought. The clot is a pirate, in which case we shouldn’t have to worry about a missile up the drive tubes but we don’t dare let him get in chain gun range. Capture is what this piece of drakh is about, plain and simple.

¶Chetwynd looked at the fiche, thought for a few minutes and then said, “OK, we’ve got just a little over twenty hours until we reach the edge of the system and starting now we go on four on and four off then we suit up and man the bridge together.”

“Clot, boss,” JJ exclaimed, “I hope that you’ve got something in mind, because from where I sit it doesn’t look so good unless there are friends of yours on that planet with a lot of firepower.”

“Trust me,” Chetwynd told him, “I’ve got a plan. Now go get some sack time; you go back on watch in four hours.”

¶ETA five hours; Chetwynd came onto the bridge with a large thermos of coffee and two mugs and told JJ to go aft, suit up and get back ASAP. JJ started to say something but shut up and did what he was told.

Twenty minutes later he was back, griping about how much he hated to have to sit for long periods in a bulky suit. Chetwynd just laughed and asked if he would rather eat vacuum.

JJ muttered something about how a suit wouldn’t help much if they took a missile up the drive tubes.

 “Don’t worry about a missile JJ,” Chetwynd told him. “This clot didn’t follow us all this way just to blow us into subatomic particles, he wants this ship.”

¶ETA four hours; “Clot,” JJ remarked, I wish we had some of those proximity fuses and detonators that we sold on Toth.”

“What the clot would you do with them?” Chetwynd asked.

“That’s easy, boss. I’d attach them to a couple of fuel pods and shove them out the airlock. They might at least rattle that clots teeth some.”

“Nice thought,” Chetwynd said, “but no cigar. Oops, it looks like he’s increasing velocity and it’s time we do the same, but just enough to maintain a bit of lead and not pull away.” Even if we could, he thought.

¶ETA three hours; “Scanning the star system, boss. It’s just a single planet about twice the diameter of Heath, a smooth yellow rock with a moderate atmosphere but no sign of life. What the clot, there’s no help there,” JJ said.

“I know,” Chetwynd told him. “Just have a little faith cheena, I know what I’m doing.”

 “I wish you’d tell me!” JJ exclaimed. “I’m so clottin nervous that I'm about to molt.""

¶ETA two hours; “Detecting missile launch, boss,” JJ said.

“OK, plot it,” Chetwynd ordered. “

Already doing so,” JJ responded in a terse voice. “Tracking, tracking, tracking, it’s gonna be a miss, boss, but not by much.”

In 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and AM2 hellfire bloomed brightly off the starboard side.

The bridge went momentarily out of focus as though being filled with a dense fog, and then everything got clear again just as the vid screen lit up and the ugliest being that Chetwynd had seen in a long time croaked, “You stop ship, boarded be, you don’t, you die!”

Chetwynd gave the being the universal one finger salute, shut off the vid and went to full velocity.

¶ETA one hour; “He’s gaining on us, boss,” JJ exclaimed, “and should be in chaingun range in about thirty minutes! I sure hope you know what you’re doing.”

“So do I, JJ, so do I,” Chetwynd said dryly. “Strap in tight and get ready to go sub light on my mark. I’m going to tease this clot a bit…Mark!”

¶ETA thirty minutes; Chetwynd had dropped out of AM2 drive, but only for a couple of seconds before going to back into AM2 again. Ten minutes later, he did it a second time for a few seconds longer and fifteen minutes later he did it one last time, staying in Yukawa drive and decelerating toward the planet.

JJ practically screamed, “What the clot are you doing?”

“I want this piece of drakh to think that we have engine trouble and are making a forced landing,” Chetwynd said.

JJ's skin turned red with worry furiously, but he said nothing.

¶ETA 0+2; Black Toad’s spots turned a pale orange as he thought, I have the clot now! Looks like his engines are giving out and all we have to do is follow him in. Tonight, with the plasma cutter I play!

“Good, good!” Black Toad said, “Keep on him, keep on him.”

As the Merry Widow streaked through the upper atmosphere, with the Black Arrow just a hundred kilometers behind, every alarm klaxon on board went off at once. Before Black Toad could say anything, the first holes appeared in the hull of the bridge and the first mate was swept out, screaming as he disappeared in a bath of scintillating, bright light.

The rest of the hull plating disappeared a short moment later and then the stanchions began to dissolve in that same brilliant light. Black Toad had just time to look down as first his hands, then his clothing and then the skin of his body began to disintegrate in coruscating light and the burning pain hit him.

The pain lasted only a few seconds but time is often subjective to the suffering. It seemed to last a lot longer than it did.

¶Ten minutes later, with the Merry Widow safely in a parking orbit, JJ turned to Chetwynd. “What the clot just happened?” he asked. “One minute I thought we were totally screwed and the next, no more pirate.”

 Chetwynd leaned back in the pilot’s chair and grinned. “Look down at that planet, JJ, and tell me what you see.”

“Same thing that I saw before, boss, just a drakh, ugly, smooth ball of rock,” JJ said.

Chetwynd looked at him, remained silent for a moment and quietly said, “No, JJ, down there is the stuff that dreams are made of. Down in the hold is a very special piece of robotic mining equipment. After dinner and a good night’s sleep, we are going to land this Imperium X shielded ship, and use that equipment to fill our Imperium X shielded hold with the material of that planet.

"You see, cheena, down there is the only anti-matter world ever discovered except perhaps by the Emp. Himself. All it took to kill our pirate friend was just the first wisps of the outer atmosphere hitting his ship.”

JJ just sat there, mouth agape, as it dawned on him that he was going to be rich, rich, rich beyond his wildest dreams!

The End


By Frank Gessel

¶Chetwynd and JJ were sitting in the Merry Widow’s galley enjoying their breakfast when the shock wave hit the ship.

¶Had they not left the red dwarf star system on schedule - or even stopped to take bearings any closer - they would have been instantly disintegrated .

¶As it was, the ship was flipped end on end, the artificial gravity field straining to keep everything inside from being smashed to a pulp.

¶A moment later with the main gyro whining at a pitch that Chetwynd had never heard before, the Merry Widow stabilized and they picked themselves up off of the deck and raced for the bridge.

¶Rogue planets are seldom ever seen as they drift in darkness through the cold void and this one had been no different. A million or so years earlier, its parent star had gone Nova and sent it on its way to eventually disrupt all of Chetwynd’s well laid plans. When matter meets anti-matter, the total annihilation of both is inevitable. When it happens on a planetary scale the result is akin to the explosion of a small star.

¶As Chetwynd looked on the main screen at the brilliant white ball of light a hundred million miles behind them, he came as close as he had ever come to crying.

¶Three weeks later the Merry Widow was in high orbit around Sr. Jon Wild's world, and the carefully managed transfer of cargo to an old AM2 shipping barge that Jon had on hand was progressing well.

¶At the moment, Chetwynd was being ferried down to the surface in a lighter by a loud mouthed, obnoxious pilot who apparently thought of himself as some sort of hot shot racer.

¶Had not Chetwynd’s stomach been trying to turn itself inside out, he would have been tempted to strangle the clot.

¶None too soon in Chetwynd’s thinking, they touched down and the hot shot was yelling, “Jonsport, all out.”¶

Chetwynd walked the hundred meters to the terminal, grabbed a narcobeer out of a vending machine to settle his queasy stomach and looked around for the slidewalk that would take him into town and Jon Wild’s office.

¶A little later as he was walking into  Jon’s outer office, Chetwynd noted that the green-skinned receptionist had been replaced by a rather striking Faltharian with some of the most elegant plumage that he had ever seen.

¶She smiled and told him to go right on in as Sr. Wild was expecting him. Jon was at the bar pouring two Streggs and handed one to Chetwynd saying, “Here cheena, I’m sure you need it.” He continued across the room, inviting Chetwynd to join him on the loungers.

They sipped the drinks in silence for a few minutes and then Jon said, “Well, I’ve read the report and you’ve had quite a time of it, haven’t you? Bad luck all around?

Chetwynd nodded agreement, the luck had indeed been bad.

¶“The good news," he went on to say, is that I’ve been in touch with some people on Newton in the Physics department, and the Imperial University is going to pay us handsomely for all that anti-matter. They are positively elated that they will have so much of the substance on hand for their R & D people to experiment with. 'Unprecedented' was the word I believe they used, and they are preparing to send a ship as we speak.”

¶Chetwynd looked over the fiche that Jon handed him and felt better than he had in the last three weeks. It was indeed a handsome amount and would make them a bit more than flush again.

¶“Are you interested in doing a job for me?” Wild asked.

¶“Depends on what it is,” Chetwynd replied.¶What do you have in mind?”

¶“Nothing that you can’t handle,” Jon said. “It’s a small but mixed bag of fairly expensive cargo along with some medical supplies to be delivered to Heath. The ship that was supposed to go developed engine problems and will be in the yard for a major overhaul for some time.”

¶He crossed the room, opened up a desk drawer and handed Chetwynd another fiche. As Chetwynd scanned down, he let out a whistle. Genuine Earth Scots whiskey, smoked Salmon, Procyon flame jewels, something called Roosky caviar and oh drakh, he thought, liquefied Anthelene!

¶ He looked up at Wild and said, “I may be a lot of things but I’m not a dope peddler!”

“I never thought you were,” Jon replied. “It’s on the up and up. I said medical supplies and I meant it. It’s not the diluted drakh that the street pushers sell.”

¶“This stuff is dangerous in more than one way,” Chetwynd replied. Back during the war a nurse at Heath General dropped and broke one vial. It put the entire emergency room staff at the hospital out of commission for two days. It vaporizes instantly and unless it’s in the proper dispenser can cause real havoc.”

¶“I know,” Jon said, but it’s one of the best and most economical general anesthetics in the known universe and they need it ASAP. Besides, the ampoules will be packed in sealed canisters so there should be little problem.”

¶Yeah, thought Chetwynd, except that to play safe I’m going to have to suit up each time I go into the hold! But what the clot, Heath’s not that long a run from here and then he would be finished with it.

¶“Done,” he said, and they shook hands on it.

¶As Chetwynd was preparing to leave, the pretty Faltharian stopped him saying, “Excuse me Sr., but there’s an incoming vid for you. I think it’s your ship.”

¶Wild told him that he could take it in his office and a moment later JJ was on the screen.

¶“The stevedores have it pretty well wrapped up here for today and say that they will finish up in the morning,” JJ said.

¶“That’s good,” Chetwynd said.¶“Why don’t you button things up and catch a lighter down and I’ll meet you at Sam’s watering hole in the terminal.”

“Sounds good boss,” JJ said. “I need to get off this bucket for a while and enjoy the bright lights some. See you in a bit.”

¶A little while later JJ came into the bar, his scales tinted the bright green of obvious physical distress.

“What the clots wrong,” Chetwynd asked?

¶JJ slid into the booth and moaned, “That clotin, piece of drakh, crazy lighter pilot is what’s wrong!¶I’ve never had a ride like that in my life and I don’t ever want to have another one.”

¶“That tears it!” Chetwynd said, as he began to get up, “I’m going to get a piece of that clot.”

¶“Don’t bother,” JJ said with a nasty grin. “I swatted the clot with my tail as I got off the lighter and I think he’s gonna have a sore stomach for a while. You poor soft skinned humans sure can’t take much of a thump!”

¶Chetwynd gave out with a belly laugh and called for another round.

¶Late the following morning after all the cargo had been transferred and the hold flushed clean, Chetwynd rode the Merry Widow down to the surface on Yukawa drive for a perfect three point landing in Jon Wild’s private yard.

¶Sr. Jon met him at the hatch, towing a well hung over JJ behind and offered to treat them both to lunch at one of the better restaurants in Jonsport.

¶Chetwynd suspected that Wild had an ulterior motive up his sleeve and he was right.¶“Are you interested in taking on a paying passenger?” Wild asked.

¶ “Well, we really don’t have much in the way of amenities for the passenger trade,” Chetwynd replied. “We could probably fix up a birth in an equipment locker just off the galley, but it wouldn’t be anything fancy, and your passenger would have to take his meals with JJ and me and accept pot luck.”

¶“That would probably be perfectly acceptable to the gentleman,” Wild replied.¶“He’s been a little down on his luck as of late getting any kind of transport and just wants to get to Heath as soon as he can.”

¶“OK,” Chetwynd said.¶“Have him on the pad no later than 0600 hours tomorrow morning. If he’s not there we’ll lift without him.”

¶Upon finishing a very fine lunch Sr. Jon excused himself saying that he had a whole mound of paperwork that was probably going to keep him occupied the rest of this day and most of the next. He wished them a safe trip, saying that he looked forward to seeing them again soon.

¶Chetwynd and JJ were soon busy aboard the Merry Widow and overseeing the loading of cargo. Sr. Jon’s stevedores knew their business and were balancing the load as it should be but Chetwynd kept a close eye on the operation anyway.¶

Like the ancient ocean going ships, space faring vessels have to have their cargo balanced evenly. Some very tragic accidents had happened upon liftoff and landing due to an unbalanced load and Chetwynd had no intention of being added to those grim statistics.

¶Several hours later, and after carefully checking and double checking the loaded cargo against the bill of lading, they sealed the hatches and went out for one last night on the town before morning liftoff.

¶The following day Chetwynd thought that they might have some trouble. The passenger turned out to be the hot shot lighter pilot that JJ had swatted.

¶The man went momentarily red in the face as JJ stepped out of the cargo hatch, but quickly regained his composure upon realizing that JJ was crew.

Chetwynd looked at the being a moment and said, “You got what you deserved the other day, young man. If JJ hadn’t have clipped you, I probably would have. A lighter pilot doesn’t treat his passengers as if they were riding on an attack ship and you should have been more respectful of other beings’ sensitivities.

"JJ will show you to your quarters and where to stow your duffle. You’ll take your meals with us. The bridge is off limits unless you’re invited, as is the hold and engine room. Am I clear, cheena?”

¶“Yes captain,” the man said.¶“You’ll have no problems from me.” Offering his hand, he added: ¶“By the way, my name is Dal Kurtis.”

Chetwynd took the firm grip and then instructed him to follow JJ.

¶A little later, and under the skillful multiple hands of JJ, the Merry Widow lifted off from Jonsport and with the gracefulness of an arrow broke atmosphere and headed for deep space.

¶After taking their bearings and making course adjustments, the ship was soon in AM2 drive and underway for the week long voyage to Heath. Chetwynd had done a little shopping while at Jonsport and the ship's refer was stocked with some new and exciting things that he hoped would prove to be delicious. Some years earlier Sr. Sten had described some of the dishes that the Emperor cooked. He was looking forward to testing his culinary skills.

¶That evening, over a meal that Chetwynd had concocted - and which he was not entirely satisfied with - they began to get to know their passenger a little.

¶“What makes you pilot a lighter like that, Dal?” Chetwynd asked.

¶The man replied, “First, let me say that I really do apologize for being a clot. You see, I really was an Imperial attack ship pilot during the war and actually was what they call a Top Gun. I got discharged on Prime world and have been working my way back home ever since.”

¶“Heath is your home?” JJ asked.

¶“Yeah,” Dal said.¶“I was visiting my mother on Prime world when the war broke out and I have a dual citizenship. I thought about it for a while and decided to enlist in the Imperial navy.

¶“I don’t suppose that made your father’s side of the family very happy with you”, Chetwynd said.

¶“I don’t imagine they would be if they knew,” Dal replied. “But they don’t and I’m not going to bring it up. My father died a year ago and I’m just planning on settling the estate before moving on.”

After a pause, he added,¶ “Anyway sometimes I just get carried away a little when I’m piloting a ship and I am really sorry about that.”

¶“ Well, here’s to life and new beginnings,” Chetwynd said, while lifting his glass.

¶Three days out and Chetwynd was in the galley, sipping a hot Cavite tea and smiling over what a hit the dish called Eggs Pattipong had been with JJ and Dal.

¶The Emp. was apparently a marvelous chef and he mused about how nice it would have been if he could have learned from the man first hand.

¶At that moment the com bleeped and JJ, who had just taken the watch, asked him to please come to the bridge. What now? he thought, as he grabbed the cup and headed forward.

¶As he stepped through the hatch and asked, “What’s up?” JJ turned and responded by saying, “Boss, I think you need to hear this,” and he switched on the vid.

No picture appeared, just sound: ¶“Freighter, Lady Jane to any ship. This is a distress call. Engines are out and we are on auxilliary power only. Please help.”

¶“Audio only?” Chetwynd asked.

¶“Yeah boss, and a pretty weak signal at that,” JJ said.

¶“Can you get a fix on it?” Chetwynd asked.

¶JJ turned back to the nav comp and then said, “About six points to port and an estimated three light years distant.”

¶“Any other ships closer?” Chetwynd asked.

¶“Not a one, boss,” JJ replied.

¶Clot, Chetwynd thought, and said, “Well, I guess we’re it… Set a course JJ,” he said, “but slow us to one third on Yukawa drive when we get to within a hundred thousand kilometers. I want to look this situation over a bit before we commit ourselves.”

¶“Right,” JJ said. He knew where the boss was coming from, as it wouldn’t be the first time that an unlucky and gullible skipper had been lured in by a pirate playing dead.

¶A little later JJ had them positioned at a dead stop and at a distance where a detailed scan could be done.

¶“No evidence of missile tubes,” JJ said, “although I see some evidence of what may be closed chain gun ports. There are two of them, just aft of the bridge section, but no more.”

¶“Yeah, I see them,” Chetwynd said.¶“It looks like he’s not any more heavily armed than we are. Let’s open our gun ports and switch the guns to standby just in case and then hail them and go from there.”

¶Works for me, boss,” JJ said, and a moment later, as fully prepared as they could be, they flipped on the vid.¶

¶“Merry Widow to distressed ship, please state the nature of your problem,” Chetwynd said.

¶The screen lit up showing a rather paunchy, red-faced man. “Lady Jane to Merry Widow, we have major magnetic field phase irregularities in the AM2 drive that have forced us to shut it down for safety’s sake.”

¶“That doesn’t sound like anything beyond the abilities of a competent engineer,” Chetwynd said.

¶“It wouldn’t be, if we had one,” the man said, “but our engineer died three days ago.”

¶What kind of clot would captain a ship with only one crew member capable of handling the engines, Chetwynd thought? The man somehow looked familiar, but Chetwynd couldn’t place the face.

¶“Captain, I don’t believe I caught your name,” Chetwynd said, and then went on to say that he could send one of his men to look over the problem if that was acceptable.

¶The man replied, “The name's Captain Garth, and yes, any help would be appreciated.”

¶“May I ask who I’m addressing?” Garth asked.¶“Captain Rafe Noman,” Chetwynd said, and then went on to say, “Captain, we will rendezvous with you in about twenty minutes. Please stand by to receive one boarder,” and switched off.

¶JJ sarcastically said, “Captain Noman, and you’re gonna send one of your crew, what the clot!”

¶Chetwynd turned and said, “There is something about that clot that isn’t right. I’ve seen him before but can’t place him, but I’m sure that his name isn’t Garth. As for the phony name and the one of my crew bit, no way am I going to let him know my name and that there are just two of us, if you get my drift!”

¶Chetwynd went on to say, “JJ, while you’re over there, keep your eyes and ears open. I want to know his crew compliment, what his cargo is and where he’s going, but don’t be obvious about it, OK?”

JJ nodded and went aft to suit up.

¶A little later JJ was on his way to the Lady Jane and Chetwynd sat on the bridge thinking: Where did he know that clot Garth from? If only he could remember.

¶About that time the screen lit up and Garth was saying, “Thank you very much for your quick response Captain. We are behind schedule as it is and you may have just saved us a great amount of trouble.”

¶“Glad to be able to help,” Chetwynd said.¶“Where are you bound?”

¶“Krax,” Garth said.¶ “We are hauling a consignment of mining equipment for the Easton Consortium that is somewhat overdue.”

¶Krax, Chetwynd thought, mentally placing the area. It was one of two Hell Worlds in the small Cygnus cluster that were the major producers of Thorium for this sector of the Galaxy. Chetwynd knew all about Krax and Baal! Years earlier when he had been sentenced to the prison world of Dru, he had considered himself lucky. For those sentenced to the Thorium mines on either of those two worlds, then owned by the Tahn, life was brutal and short. It was always a matter of conjecture which killed a being first, the hard labor or the radiation. The Easton Consortium, the present owners of those worlds, was a large mining conglomerate that he had heard a little of, and the rumors that he had heard weren’t good!¶

¶ “Well, JJ is a good engineer,” Chetwynd said.¶“If anyone can get you up and running in short order, he's it. Tell him to keep me posted and if there’s any equipment he needs, I’ll get it ready to transfer over.”

“Will do,” Garth replied.¶“I suppose we will know more in a little while… Garth out.”

¶Moments later as Chetwynd was studying Garth’s face on the screen, the com bleeped and Dal said, “Captain I’m brewing up some Cavite tea, would you care for some?”

¶“Yes, by all means,” Chetwynd replied, “but I can’t leave the bridge at the moment, would you please bring it forward?”

¶“Sure,” Dal replied, “be there in a few.”¶

¶As Dal stepped through the hatch and onto the bridge, he noticed the face on the screen and let out a loud exclamation while almost dropping the teapot and cups. “That scrote! Is that the captain of that freighter over there?”

¶“Yeah,” Chetwynd said.¶“Do you know him?”

¶“I don’t know him,” Dal said, “but I know of him! You must be a little out of touch out this far toward the galactic rim. This piece of drakh was big news for a while on Prime. I watched the trial on livee.”¶

“He looked a little familiar to me as well but I haven’t been able to place him,” Chetwynd said.¶“Please fill me in on captain Garth.”

¶“First off,” Dal said, “his name isn’t Garth, it’s Jak Smyth, more popularly known on the news casts as Black Jak. He had a bad reputation during the war as a commandant of one of the Imperial POW worlds that experienced an unusually high death rate amongst the Tahn prisoners. I understand that he was going to be put up for Court martial, but escaped justice pending his resignation.”

¶“That figures,” Chetwynd said, “no one particularly cared about the fate of prisoners on either side in those days.”

¶“After the war,” Dal went on to say, “the clot next turned up when an Imperial destroyer gave him chase out beyond the Altaic cluster. It seems that the Imperials had gotten word that Jak was running slaves out into one of the pioneer sectors and they were hot on his drive tubes when he did a close orbit around a black hole and almost lost them.

"When they finally boarded him, he had an empty hold except for the stink of many bodies. They arrested him and his crew and put them on trial on Prime. The destroyer’s navigator testified that for a split second he thought he saw a number of objects ejected from the alleged slavers cargo hatch in the direction of the black hole’s event horizon but the defense council got the testimony struck, and as they had no proof and no bodies they eventually had to let them go.”

¶ “Slaves,” Chetwynd exclaimed!¶“I thought that the Empire had put an end to that long ago.”

¶“Don’t kid yourself captain,” Dal said.¶“It isn’t talked about in polite circles and technically it is illegal, but out in the pioneer sectors where the Empire doesn’t have much sway, there are a few worlds only too eager to acquire a cheap labor force and they supply a steady market for the trade. There are also a few private companies that are rumored to use slave labor as well and while I can’t say for certain, Imperial officials seem to turn a blind eye to it if they produce.”

¶They were just finishing the tea when the screen lit up showing JJ’s face. “Captain,” he said, “their engine problem isn’t too major but they are not going anywhere until I can install a replacement field phase transducer. The one that I need and they haven’t got is a CYQ4751A2 multi- phase. I believe we have at least two in the supply locker. Could you check our inventory and get back to me?”

¶“Hang on,” Chetwynd told him, “and I’ll get back to you in a few minutes.”

¶Chetwynd called it up on the computer, went aft to verify that the numbers matched and a few minutes later confirmed that they did indeed have some.¶

“Good,” JJ said, “I’ll be over to get one just as soon as I suit up.”

¶“OK,” Chetwynd said, “I’ll meet you at the lock.” ¶He wondered what kind of a clot of an engineer wouldn’t keep an ample supply of spare parts!

¶Twenty minutes later he met JJ at the airlock with the part in hand. As JJ pulled off his helmet, Chetwynd asked him what he had found out while over there.

JJ responded, “I’ve not seen such a slovenly, creepy bunch in a while, boss. There are twenty two of them, not counting that Garth fellow and boss, this is important. That ships a slaver!”

¶“Are you sure”, Chetwynd asked?

“Clot yes! I overheard two of the crew talking,” JJ replied, “and even if they hadn’t, I could tell that something wasn’t right by the smell. Keeping the hatch bolted on a hold doesn’t eliminate that. The air refreshers can never completely hide the smell of sweat, drakh and vomit from a lot of tightly packed beings.”

¶“Hang loose here for a bit, JJ,” Chetwynd said, “I’ve got something I have to give you before you go back over there.”

¶With that, Chetwynd went to the locker room, suited up and headed aft to the hold, returning a short time later with a clear vial of liquid that he carefully wrapped in a small square of superconductor cloth to cushion it.

¶“Be extra careful with this,” Chetwynd said, “you know what it will do if it breaks.”

¶“Let me guess, boss, you want me to introduce this to their air circulation system,” JJ said.”

¶“You got it, cheena, and once it’s done its work, get up to the bridge and give me the high sign and I’ll be on my way over.”

¶Chetwynd paced and paced, checking the ship’s chronometer every few minutes. Why is it, that time seems to drag forever when you are waiting for something, he wondered?¶

After what seemed an eternity, the screen came to life and there was JJ, giving him the thumbs up. Chetwynd, who was already suited up, headed for the airlock and the always scary EVA. Soon he was climbing through the Lady Jane’s airlock and using the short range suit communicator to instruct JJ to stay buttoned up.

¶“No purrroblem, boss,” JJ replied.¶“How long do you suppose it takes this stuff to clear anyway?”

¶“Usually an hour to an hour and a half,” Chetwynd said.¶“It all depends on the size of the affected space and the efficiency of the air scrubbing machinery. Let’s play it safe and go for an hour and a half. In the meantime, let’s see what we have in the cargo hold and then delve into the ship’s log.”

¶Hardened being that Chetwynd was, he was not prepared for what he saw upon opening the hatch of the Lady Jane’s hold. The bulkheads were outfitted from end to end with what could only be called metal platforms, spaced in tiers about three feet apart vertically.

Lying side by side with no room between them were sleeping beings, and the deck was covered with them as well. The hold was one mass of human flesh, all chained together and in the most filthy of conditions. Chetwynd was glad that he had his suit on as the smell had to be overpowering, and he wondered how he was going to address the problem in another day or so when they woke up.

¶He glanced at JJ and through his faceplate saw the same sick look that he’d seen a few days earlier.

¶The bridge was a hog’s pen with coffee stains, half eaten food lying around and in general disorder, a reflection of the ship’s condition overall and Chetwynd was not inclined to stay there any longer than he had to. He felt his skin itch and even though he knew that it was due to an over active imagination, he almost felt that the dirt was attacking him through his suit.

¶He disconnected the black box and log from the control panel and decided that he would read it on his own bridge and not stay there a moment longer.

¶A few moments later JJ called him from the engine room and advised him that the Lady Jane had full power restored.

¶“Meet me at the airlock, JJ, and let’s go home,” Chetwynd said.

¶“Gladly,” JJ responded, “I’ve had quite enough of this drakh for the time being.”

¶An hour later, they were having coffee in the galley and trying to decide what to do when Dal walked in.

¶Chetwynd looked up and said, “Dal, please sit down while I explain the situation to you and when I’m done, I intend to make a job offer to you.”

¶Chetwynd quickly gave him the rundown on what they were up against and then said, “Dal, would you like a temporary position as one of the crew with equal pay?”

¶Dal thought it over for a few minutes and then smiled and said that he was game.

¶JJ spoke up and said, “Good! You can grab one of the extra suits and help me space the whole clotin crew over there!”

¶“No,” Chetwynd said, “I think that I might have a better idea. What I want you to do now is to get back over there and unchain those poor clots in the hold. Then manacle and chain Jak and his crew, put them in emergency bags, bring them back here and secure them tightly in the hold. After that we will have to clean that pig sty of a ship up some, jury rig a fresher for those beings and try to get them fed and a little more comfortable after they wake up."

He thought for a minute, then added: "¶JJ, I want you to acquaint yourself with the bridge of that ship and let me know if you think you can pilot it solo back to Jonsworld.”

¶JJ and Dal both nodded and said, “Aye, aye boss,” almost in unison.

¶The early evening found Chetwynd sitting in the pilot’s chair of the Merry Widow sipping a cup of Cavite tea and musing. He had just finished reviewing the Lady Jane’s log and had found it most enlightening. Apparently, the voyage into this sector by Jak and his slave running crew was their first.

¶Therefore it stood to reason that they knew few, if any beings at the actual mining worlds run by the Easton industry group. Yes, yes, he thought, there just might be some extra credits to be made this voyage. The final piece of the puzzle came when JJ had shown him a fiche that he had found in the captain’s cabin, listing the call signs and codes for approaching those worlds.

¶Yes indeed, Chetwynd thought.¶It would be a bit of a gamble, but he had gambled most of his life and more often than not, won.

¶Two days later they had the Lady Jane approaching some semblance of being properly shipshape. They had installed a fresher in an emptied out boatswains' locker, just forward of the hold and secured all the areas that they didn’t want to be open to people who weren’t ship’s company.

¶The feeding problem was solved by Dal, who had been a mess cook for a month or so on one of the Imperial Navy’s basic training planets and he assured Chetwynd that he was up to the challenge, as long as it was very temporary.

¶JJ walked into the galley and said, “Our passengers are waking up, boss.”

¶“OK,” Chetwynd said, “Give them another hour and then we will see if we can sort this out.”

¶Chetwynd had found a bullhorn in the first mate’s cabin and had just turned it on while reminding himself to breathe through his mouth before entering the hold.

¶A moment later he was shouting, “Attention, attention, I’m Captain Chetwynd, the new captain of this vessel, and you are free beings again. I want you to pick a representative to meet with me and he and I will see if we can come to an agreement on how to return you to your homes in the most expedient manor. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes, so choose quickly.”

¶Chetwynd stepped back through the hatch, breathing deeply and trying to fight his now very queasy stomach.

¶When he returned a short time later, he found a single, grey bearded man standing just inside the hatch.¶

“Are you the representative,” Chetwynd asked.¶“Ja, ja,” the man said, “I am der Elder und at your service herr cap-i-tan.”

¶The man had a funny accent, Chetwynd thought, but at least I can understand him.¶“What’s your name,” Chetwynd asked?

¶“Mine name ist Millr, Josep Millr, Sr..”

¶“OK,” Chetwynd said.¶“Mr. Millr, I want you to follow JJ here to the fresher. He will show you how to operate it if you are unfamiliar. There are a couple pairs of clean ship’s coveralls there as well. Change into one that fits you and my mate will then bring you to me in the galley.”

¶A short time later, he and JJ were sitting in the galley watching the delighted look on Millr’s face as he sipped at a cup of Antarian coffee.

“Oh my,” he exclaimed, I have never tasted such a good drink! You say that it’s a product of this Empire of yours?”

¶“Well, not exactly my empire,” Chetwynd said, “but it’s one of their better products. Where are you people from, that you don’t know of the empire?”

¶“Ve are from New Switzerland,” Millr said.

¶“I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of it,” Chetwynd replied, “but no matter at the moment. What I want you to do, Mr. Millr, is to start organizing your people a few at a time to use the fresher and then carry their clothes to the small ship’s laundry, just aft of the hold. JJ will show you where it is and how to operate it.

"¶Unfortunately, we don’t have enough coveralls to replace those filthy rags that your people are wearing.”

¶“Herr cap-i-tan,” Millr exclaimed!¶“It is against our beliefs to go naked, you see, ve are Hamish.”

¶“Mr. Millr,” Chetwynd said, “nudity is against most beings’ beliefs, but for a short time your people will just have to put up with it. I’ll not have this ship smelling like drakh. By the way, there is a cleaning equipment locker at the forward end of the hold. I expect your people to do what they have to in the way of cleaning up the hold. We can berth a small number of you in crew’s quarters and a few more in the main passageway but the majority of your people will have to stay in place for the time being and no sentient being needs to live in a pig sty.”

¶Ja, ja, Millr said, Ve know how to clean a barn.”

¶After the evening meal, Chetwynd, JJ, and Dal sat at the main table and listened as Millr’s story of his people and planet unfolded.

¶Some three thousand or so years earlier, and before AM2 drive, both governments and some private enterprises had sent people out in Long Liners in old Earth’s first attempts to colonize the stars. Carrying several thousand beings at a time in suspended animation, as well as frozen embryos of livestock, seed etc. the ships were either of the Bussard ram scoop design or powered by light sail. Needless to say they weren’t capable of exceeding light speed, and were thus subject to voyaging for decades, and all the inherent dangers that space can offer.

The ship that Millr’s people had embarked on had been a Light Jammer. Somewhere near Lundmarks nebula the ship had encountered a violent ion gale that had killed most of the flight and maintenance crew and blown them far off course.

¶The Hamish found themselves deep inside the nebula in a damaged ship with sails that were tattered and torn beyond repair, and headed toward a single G type star that hopefully had planets. It had one planet out of three that looked promising and which became home.

¶For the next three thousand years the Hamish, who were farmers by nature, planted and harvested their crops, raised their livestock, reproduced, and slowly terra formed the world of New Switzerland to their liking, happily oblivious to the outside universe. When the Lady Jane landed outside of a small Hamish community, there was great rejoicing, until Jak and his crew came out with loaded guns.

¶“I believe that you know the rest of the story,” Millr said.

¶ And indeed they did!

¶Late the following day, with the hold cleaned out, and the Hamish spread about for a little more comfort, Chetwynd and his crew of two went back aboard the Merry Widow.

¶JJ needed to get his duffle and prepare to pilot the Lady Jane to Jonsport, and Chetwynd and Dal to take sights and make course corrections for the next destination.

¶JJ said, “I suppose we ought to check on our guests and maybe feed them a little.”

¶Chetwynd nodded and they went aft with a bag of space rats and a large bucket. Upon opening the hatch to the hold, Jak let out with a stream of curses that would have blistered the ears of the roughest thugs on Heath. ¶Chetwynd told him to shut up, but he just kept it up.

Then JJ did something that shocked even Chetwynd, hardened being that he was. With two of his hands holding Jak’s head, another on his nose and still another holding Jak by the throat, JJ bent down as if to kiss the clot on the mouth. A moment later JJ stood back up, spat something pink on the deck and said, “My great grand'Sr always said that humans tasted like drakh and he was right!”

¶Chetwynd looked back at Jak, who was gurgling and moaning as his mouth filled with blood and threw him a rag to help stifle the bleeding.

¶“Well, he said, I guess that will teach you to mouth off to your betters,” as his stomach did a few flip flops and he thought to himself never to get JJ seriously mad at him.

¶Chetwynd had known that Spindars had evolved from a rather vicious race of carnivores, but until now he had never realized just how vicious and he was glad that JJ was on his side.

¶He threw the bag of space rats to Jak’s first mate and set the bucket down in front of him.¶“Make them last for a while,” he said, “and here’s your slop bucket. See that you don’t make a mess of things.”

¶A little later as JJ was suiting up, Chetwynd handed him a sealed packet for delivery to Sr. Jon.

¶“These are the coordinates for New Switzerland that I downloaded from Jak’s log and the instructions for what I want done with this ship,” he said. “In the meantime old friend, take care of yourself and don’t spend all your credits the first week of planet leave. With a little luck, I expect to be back on Jonsworld in about two weeks, so hang loose and I’ll see you soon.”

¶They shook hands and all too soon JJ was headed back to the Lady Jane. Chetwynd looked out the lock port at his departing friend for a few minutes, then shrugged his shoulders and went forward to the bridge to make preparations for getting underway.¶

¶Dal turned out to be a pretty good cook and they took turns at playing chef, each one trying to outdo the other. It made a boring voyage go a little bit easier and the time seemed to go faster. In what seemed like less time than it took, they were approaching their next destination.

¶ Chetwynd thought that he would be glad when this part of the voyage was well behind him and hoped that the next few hours would go smoothly.

¶The main screen’s speakers crackled. A voice with no visual said, “Baal control to unidentified vessel. You are entering proscribed space. Please state your business.”

¶Chetwynd answered, “This is pocket freighter Celeste, Captain Noman speaking, code group tango, alpha, romeo SXY with a small cargo of category 13 H mining equipment for sale.”

¶“Stand by Celeste,” the voice said, and after an agonizing couple of minutes waiting for the voice to come back on, it did.

¶“Follow the beacon down to landing pad three on the north side of the field,” and the voice went on to say, “do not deviate or you will be shot down. There will be a representative waiting for you upon touchdown. Do you copy?”

¶Chetwynd said he did and switched off.

¶The representative was a smallish man toting a briefcase, who Chetwynd discovered was the Forman of the shipping and receiving department on Baal. The man seemed amiable enough but Chetwynd was on his guard and conscious of the pocket Willygun under his vest that was ready for instant use if need be.

¶“May we proceed to the inspection of the merchandise?” the man inquired, “it’s been a busy day here and I really don’t have a lot of time.”

¶“Sure,” Chetwynd said,¶“just follow me please.”

¶The small man surprised Chetwynd. He only looked at the monitor screen on the hold bulkhead and didn’t bother to ask for a closer inspection. He wrote something on a small pad, turned to Chetwynd and asked if that number met with his approval?

Chetwynd looked at the pad, nodded, and the man opened the briefcase that was filled with credits, counted out a substantial amount and handed it to him.

¶“If you will meet me at the main cargo hatch,” the man said, “I’ve got a gravsled with a couple of helpers just outside.”¶Chetwynd said that he would meet him at the hatch and quickly saw him off of the ship.

¶With Dal stationed at the interior cargo hatch with a plasma rifle, Chetwynd opened the main hatch door and moments later two very tough looking beings entered.

¶Chetwynd unlocked the chain holding Jak and his crew to the bulkhead and handed the end to one of them. They were quickly marched off the ship to the waiting gravsled and just as quickly, Chetwynd sealed ship.

¶As soon as he could get clearance, Chetwynd lifted off on Yukawa drive at top velocity and did not breathe a real sigh of relief until they had taken bearings and switched to AM2 drive for Heath.

¶The rest of the voyage went uneventfully and a few days later they touched down at Heath’s main port. Customs officials came on board for the usual inspection and gave everything the thumbs up. The representative from Heath General Hospital was a little miffed about one of the vials of Anthelene coming up missing.

¶Chetwynd told him that delicate cargo such as that often had a shaky survival rate and that he should consider it to be lucky that only one broke. The man grumbled a bit more under his breath, but no more was said.

¶After all the cargo was unloaded and while Chetwynd was standing at the hatch, Dal came up to him, duffle bag swung over one shoulder and said, “It’s been fun working with you captain, and I hope we can do it again sometime.”

¶Chetwynd looked at him and said, “Dal, you’ve proved to be a good shipmate.¶After you get everything straightened out here and your father’s estate settled, there’s a job open for you on this ship if you want it.”

¶“Thank you captain,” Dal said, I’ll certainly give it some thought. How do I find you if I decide to take you up on your offer, he asked?”

¶“I’m not off of Heath for real long periods of time so ask at the K’ton club. Someone there will know where I can be reached.”

¶They shook hands and as Chetwynd watched Dal walk toward the main gate, he wondered if the young man would be back.

¶As the Merry Widow touched down at Jonsport two weeks later, many parsecs away and a mile and a half underground, two chained together beings were grunting and sweating while positioning a heavy vibro drill up to the Thorium rich rock face.

Ever mindful of the overseer’s electrowhip, unit Number 3215, formerly known as Black Jak Smyth put all his strength into manhandling the heavy drill while silently cursing the being named Noman and swearing that one day he would kill the clot.

¶Of course, the still rational part of his brain knew that would never be. No one ever escaped from Baal. He also knew that healthy as he presently was, each day down here was taking its toll and he wondered how long it would be before his hair, teeth and nails would begin to fall out.

¶As the perky Faltharian receptionist ushered Chetwynd in to Sr. Wild’s inner sanctum, Jon let out with a loud laugh and exclaimed, “Ah, the prodigal son has returned! Take a seat, take a seat, cheena!”

Chetwynd looked around as Jon handed him a drink and said, “Where’s JJ? I thought he might be here for this meeting.”

¶Jon replied that JJ was probably well inside Lundmarks nebula by now on the Wind Song and returning about half the Hamish to New Switzerland.

¶“Wind Song,” Chetwynd asked?¶“I don’t recall a ship of that name in your fleet.”

¶“There wasn’t until a week ago,” Jon replied.¶“I did what you recommended and the Lady Jane’s serial number, name, and registry has all been changed and she’s the Wind Song now.”

¶“You didn’t sell her then, Chetwynd asked?”

¶“Oh yeah,” Jon replied, “she went up for auction and upon giving it some thought, I decided to bid on her myself. She will make a nice long range trading ship for some new markets.”

¶Chetwynd took a sip of the amber colored drink that Jon had given him. It had a smooth, mildly smoky flavor and was unlike anything he’d ever tasted before.

¶“What is this?” he asked, “It’s good!”

¶“Real old Earth Scots whiskey,” Jon replied.¶“It’s very expensive and very much sought after on some worlds. It’s a new marketable item that I’ve recently discovered.”¶

¶“Speaking of new marketable items,” Jon went on to say as he handed Chetwynd a fiche showing his much expanded bank account, “these Hamish are quite unique, if somewhat primitive. After talking to Mr. Millr at some length, I believe that they might offer some exotic things for trade, something I believe he called Swiss cheese. It sounds very promising, and when Captain Harris and JJ get back in another two weeks, I’ll be quite interested in trying it out. I imagine that JJ will be only too happy to finish that trip. Captain Harris runs a taut ship but he can be difficult to get along with.”

¶“Well, I hope that for his sake, that he’s not too difficult a task master,” Chetwynd said under his breath.”

¶“What do you mean by that?” Jon enquired.

¶“Oh nothing,” Chetwynd replied, “just a private joke.”

¶“What are your plans for the next few weeks?” Wild asked.

¶“Well, right now, nothing much except laying back and enjoying the good life until JJ returns, and then I’m not sure,” Chetwynd replied. “Why do you ask?”

¶“It seems that not all the Hamish might be interested in going home,” Jon said.¶“They’ve been out looking over some of the empty land on this world and seem to think it would be good for farming. One of the things that they seem to require though is something called horses. Do you know what they are and if there is a place close by where we can get any?”

¶Chetwynd groaned at the thought of animals on his clean little ship. He’d had quite enough of barnyard type smells recently, but what the clot, he could always blow the hold out to space after the shipment.

¶“Yeah,” he said, Heath has several different breeds.”

¶“Good, good,” Sr. Jon said. I’ll let our Hamish friends know and I’ll keep in touch.”

¶Chetwynd took a couple more sips of the Scotch, thinking to himself that he could get used to it easily when Jon asked one more question.

¶“You haven’t said, and I’m dying of curiosity,” he remarked, what did you do with Black Jak and his crew?¶You didn’t space them, did you?”

¶ A wolfish grin came to Chetwynd’s face as he took another sip and leaned back in the chair and spoke.¶“Let’s just say that we convinced them to make a career change, and I think that it’s safe to say that in their efforts to please their new employers they are conscientiously - just slaving away.”

¶ The End.



The entire 8-novel landmark science fiction series is now being presented in three three giant omnibus editions from Orbit Books.  The First - BATTLECRY - features the first three books in the series: Sten #1; Sten #2 -The Wolf Worlds; and Sten #3, The Court Of A Thousand Suns. Next: JUGGERNAUT, which features Sten #4, Fleet Of The Damned; Sten #5, Revenge Of The Damned; and Sten #6, The Return Of The Emperor. Finally, there's DEATHMATCH, which contains Sten #6, Vortex; and Sten #7, End Of Empire. Click on the highlighted titles to buy the books. Plus, if you are a resident of The United Kingdom, you can download Kindle versions of the Omnibus editions. Which is one clot of a deal!
Here's the Kindle link for BATTLECRY
Here's the Kindle link for JUGGERNAUT
Here's the Kindle link for DEATHMATCH



Two new companion editions to the international best-selling Sten series. In the first, learn the Emperor's most closely held  cooking secrets. In the other, Sten unleashes his shaggy-dog joke cracking sidekick, Alex Kilgour. Both available as trade paperbacks or in all major e-book flavors. Click here to tickle your funny bone or sizzle your palate.  



Venice Boardwalk Circa 1969
In the depths of the Sixties and The Days Of Rage, a young newsman, accompanied by his pregnant wife and orphaned teenage brother, creates a Paradise of sorts in a sprawling Venice Beach community of apartments, populated by students, artists, budding scientists and engineers lifeguards, poets, bikers with  a few junkies thrown in for good measure. The inhabitants come to call the place “Pepperland,” after the Beatles movie, “Yellow Submarine.” Threatening this paradise is  "The Blue Meanie,"  a crazy giant of a man so frightening that he eventually even scares himself. Here's where to buy the book. 


Diaspar Magazine - the best SF magazine in South America - is publishing the first novel in the Sten series in four 
episodes. Part One and Part Two appeared in back-to-back issues. And now Part Three has hit the virtual book stands.  Stay tuned, for the grand conclusion. Meanwhile, here are the links to the first three parts. Remember, it's free!


Matt said...

Really great! Works within the Steniverse but also as a stand alone set of adventures.

Matt said...

Really great! Works within the Steniverse but also as a stand alone set of adventures.