Authors: William C. Dietz
Tags: #Science Fiction
Copyright © by William C. Dietz 1986
Published by E-Reads
To Grace Dietz who taught me to love books,
To Marjorie Dietz who believed I could write one,
To F. M. Busby for his advice and support,
And to Sue Stone, who found this story, read it, and improved it.
From his vantage point at the bar, McCade could watch the entire room. It was saturated with smoke and noise and filled to overflowing with people. Cadien was there somewhere. McCade could feel it. An evil presence. A hunted animal gone to earth. But where? All sorts of people mixed and mingled in a swirl of movement and color. There were miners just in from the asteroids eager to live out fantasies devised a million lights away. There were long-haul freighters, the stink of their sweat still on them, celebrating the end of a three-month run. Navy men drank and laughed, trying to forget the fear and boredom of patrol along the frontier. And yes, there were also those like McCade himself. Hunters of men, watching and waiting for one of the many faces they'd memorized, hoping that tonight they'd make the big score. Among them moved drug vendors, thieves, and prostitutes, all plying their various trades. All were welcome in Floyd's Pink Asteroid Bar and Grill. All helped make Imperial Earth possible. None were welcome among its more refined pleasures.
McCade slid off his stool. His stained leathers creaked slightly as he stood. Alien suns had darkened his skin and etched deep lines around his gray eyes. Under thick black hair, his features were strong and even. A muscle twitched in his left cheek. He moved with the smooth confidence of a man well aware of his own ability. His right hand brushed the grip of the slug gun worn low on his right thigh.
He felt the familiar flutter of fear low in his gut as he began to circle the room. Cadien scared the hell out of him. Psychopath. Professional assassin.
Butcher. Cadien was all these and more. On New Britain he'd fulfilled an illegal assassination by blowing up a yacht along with its owner. In the past he'd committed many lesser crimes and gotten away.
But this time Cadien had gone too far. Among those who died on the yacht was the Emperor's favorite niece. A price was placed on Cadien's head. One million Imperial credits, dead or alive. Every hand was turned against him, so Cadien ran. From planet to planet and from system to system. Bounty hunters followed—men like Sam McCade.
Since the cost of creating and operating an Imperial police force was considered prohibitive, interplanetary law enforcement was carried out by bounty hunters. They were a strange breed. Both hated and feared, loners mostly, they were forever excluded from the society they served. Planetary law enforcement officers resented them, and placed them on a par with those they hunted. Citizens often romanticized them, imagining their lives to be both glamorous and exciting. But no one wanted them around for longer than it took them to do their job. So bounty hunters were constantly on the move.
For a few credits at any public terminal, they could punch up a current list of Imperial fugitives, including their names, known histories, habitual weapons, and most important of all, the reward offered for their capture or termination. Occasionally the reward would be conditional, specifying that the fugitive must be brought in alive, but most often dead or even proof of death was just fine. Having picked a fugitive, the bounty hunter could request and receive a hunting license for that particular person. Capturing or killing a fugitive without a license was considered fortuitous, which meant no reward.
A record number of bounty hunters had requested licenses on Cadien, including Sam McCade. One million credits was an unusually high reward. But time passed and Cadien had proved to be both cunning and elusive, so most of his pursuers gave up, turning their attention to other less difficult prey. But McCade was tenacious, and a million credits was a lot of money—enough to buy a ship of his own.
For a bounty hunter a ship was both a status symbol and a tool, a means of catching more fugitives. But at times that goal seemed distant indeed. Expenses had consumed most of his money, and the trail was growing cold. But finally, just when McCade was about to give up, a paid informer led him to Cadien's mistress. It took time, and the rest of McCade's money, but the information she provided had led him to the Pink Asteroid. He was broke, and liners were notoriously expensive, so to get there he'd been forced to ship out as third mate on an ore freighter. It had touched down on Imperial Earth three days before. Each night he'd waited for Cadien to show. Maybe tonight would be the night.
As he moved, McCade's eyes continually scanned the crowd, comparing each face with the memprinted image of Cadien burned into his mind. Some eyes met his in open challenge. Those he ignored. Others slid away. Those he followed, checking and comparing. Toward the center of the room he noticed a miner who looked a lot like Cadien. Casually he moved between the tightly packed tables to get a better look.
He had just decided it wasn't Cadien when something tugged at his arm, and the miner's head exploded. He turned, dropping to one knee. His gun roared three times. The heavy slugs tore Cadien's chest apart. A woman screamed. Suddenly everyone wanted to be somewhere else. The crowd pushed toward the doors and streamed outside.
McCade's left arm hurt. Cadien's slug had passed right through it before hitting the miner. He clutched it as he walked over and looked down at the miner's crumpled body, dully wondering who he'd been, why he'd died, and whether anyone else would care. A trail of red dots followed him over to Cadien. He'd seemed larger than life, almost superhuman, as McCade had tracked him across the stars. But dead, he looked small and empty. McCade would have preferred to bring him in alive. But sometimes they didn't give you any choice.
His arm hurt more now and was covered with blood. The bastard had nicked a vein or something. His vision was fading. He was falling. He heard distant voices. They didn't seem to make any sense. "Tourniquet . . . under arrest for . . ." Rough hands grabbed and lifted. There was an explosion of pain and then nothing.
He struggled to clear his vision. Gray ceilings and walls swam into focus. Wherever he looked he saw surveillance sensors. Made obvious to intimidate? McCade smiled wryly. If so it was working. His left arm was numb. Turning his head he tried to see it, but couldn't. From the shoulder down it disappeared into an automedic. The machine hummed softly as it speeded the healing process along. It was a standard, navy model. As was the bed, the room's single chair, and everything else in sight. No doubt about it, somehow he'd wound up in a navy brig. The Pink Asteroid was located in Santa Fe. So they'd probably taken him to Earth Fleet Base, which sprawled across most of New Mexico. But why? McCade didn't know . . . but somehow he felt sure that he wouldn't like the answer. He felt very tired, or was it just that the automedic was pumping a sedative into his system? He decided it made very little difference and fell asleep.
When he awoke he felt better. The automedic was gone. His left arm was bandaged and sore but seemed able to move normally.
Silently a section of wall slid back. A man stepped into the cell. "Hello, Sam. It's been a long time."
He was strongly backlit, and it took McCade a moment to recognize him. Walter Swanson-Pierce. A little older, hair dusted with gray, but still trim and fit. Never a friend, but not exactly an enemy either. More like a friendly adversary. But that was a long time ago. While time had passed, it had done nothing to change the smile that rang slightly false, the eyes that reflected vain arrogance, or the face still a shade too pretty for a man. Still, some things had changed. The gold rings on Swanson-Pierce's immaculate, space-black sleeve were those of a full captain. Lieutenant to captain in ten years. Not bad. Good old Walt had done well for himself. McCade felt sorry for those who'd been in the way.
Squinting into the light, McCade replied, "Hello, Walt. Since you're in, I might as well ask you to sit down. You will anyway."
The other man crossed the room with a smile. "It's nice to see you've retained your sense of humor." He lowered himself gracefully into the skeletal form of the chair. "Yes, it's been a long time. Those were the days, weren't they, Sam? The old
wasn't much compared to today's battleships. Still we showed the pirates a thing or two, didn't we? By god we were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed back then!"
"Cut the crap, Walt," McCade replied. "The
was a stinking old tub that could barely lift off-planet, and you know it. And we weren't bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. More like hungry, tired, and scared shitless. Let's get on with it . . .. What're you doing here? Or, more to the point, what am
"Why, Sam," Swanson-Pierce said. "I see your charming directness hasn't changed a bit! In answer to your question, you're the guest of the Imperial Navy, recovering from wounds suffered while ridding the empire of a dangerous criminal. Or so it says in this morning's news. By the way, the Emperor sends his thanks." Swanson-Pierce leaned back, the hint of a smile touching his lips.
McCade grimaced. "Walt, you know where you and the Emperor can shove it. I don't want your hospitality. I just want out. Now."
Swanson-Pierce frowned in mock concern. "Sam, you really must be more circumspect. Imagine! Telling the Emperor to shove it. Why some would call that treason. Fortunately I know you jest." His look hardened. "As for leaving, wherever would you go?"
McCade sighed. Swanson-Pierce clearly enjoyed toying with him, and for the moment there wasn't much he could do about it. It reminded him of junior officer's mess when they'd both been aboard the
As the most senior lieutenant—his commission had predated McCade's by a week—Swanson-Pierce had always enjoyed playing games with those junior to him. Not so much with McCade, who refused to be intimidated, but especially sub-lieutenants and midshipmen.
McCade forced a smile and said, "I'll tell you what, Walt, you let me out of here, I'll toddle off, collect the reward for killing that dangerous criminal you mentioned, and then I'll check into a nice hotel." McCade smiled hopefully.
"Well I'd like to Sam, I really would," Swanson-Pierce replied gravely. "But there is the matter of the Imperial Claims Board."
"The Imperial Claims Board?" McCade asked, dreading the answer.
"Why yes," the naval officer replied innocently. "All claims for reward stemming from the death of a fugitive from Imperial justice must be dully considered and approved by the Imperial Claims Board," he recited. Swanson-Pierce watched to see if McCade would take the bait—just as he had taken it so long ago.
"Since when?" McCade asked through clenched teeth, unable to resist.
"Since yesterday," Swanson-Pierce answered happily, the game won.
For a moment the two men stared at each other. Swanson-Pierce with barely disguised glee, and McCade with disgust verging on hatred. Now he remembered why they'd never been friends. Straining for control, McCade asked, "How long will it take for my claim to be approved?"
"That's really hard to say," the other man replied thoughtfully. "The Board's just getting organized, and of course they'll want to agree on some rules and what not, why I suppose it could take months!"
"In that case," McCade said grimly, "I'll just leave and wait for my claim to clear." He sat up and swung his feet over the side of the bed. A wave of dizziness and nausea swept over him.
Swanson-Pierce summoned up a look of fatherly concern. "I really couldn't allow it, Sam. You're obviously not up to snuff." He paused judiciously, regarding McCade through steepled fingers. "I hesitate to bring this up, considering your health and so on, but there is one other small difficulty. It seems you're under arrest. Something about discharging firearms within the city limits."
McCade allowed himself to fall back against the pillow. Obviously Swanson-Pierce still wanted something, and he'd have to provide it before he could go. "All right, Walt," McCade said wearily. "You've had your fun. Now cut the bull. Exactly what do you want?"
The other man smiled as he rose from his chair. Walking toward the door he shook his head in pretended amazement. "Sam, you'll never change." He turned in the doorway. "Get some rest, Sam. We'll talk again soon." He stepped out of the cell and the door slid silently closed behind him.
For some time McCade lay there, rigid with frustration. He'd done it.
He'd tracked Cadien halfway across the empire, damn near got his ass blown off, and earned a million Imperials in the process. Right now he should have been getting drunk, getting laid, and getting ready to pick out his ship. Roughly in that order. Instead, a naval officer with a sadistic sense of humor had gone to a great deal of trouble to lock him up. Why? Nothing came. One by one he ordered his muscles to relax. Gradually they obeyed and finally he sank into the oblivion of sleep.