by Allen M. Steele
Allen M. Steele was a journalist before turning to his first love, science fiction. Since then he has published nineteen novels and nearly a hundred short stories. His work has received numerous awards, including three Hugos, and has been translated worldwide. A lifelong space enthusiast, he has testified before Congress in hearings regarding space exploration and flown the NASA space shuttle simulator. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife Linda and their dogs.
“Tell me about the job.”
Red couldn’t see the one who spoke to him. The voice came from the other side of the cone of light surrounding the chair in which he sat; it wasn’t unfriendly, but neither was it particularly kind. Two men stood behind him, menacingly silent. They might be told to offer him lunch or drag him to the nearest airlock; it all depended on how he answered the questions given to him by the unseen figure seated just out of sight.
“I think you know that already.” Red started to casually cross his legs, then decided against it; he didn’t want to come off as insolent. “I mean … not to be obtuse about such things, but if you don’t, then why am I here?”
“You were caught taking something that doesn’t belong to you.”
“Well, no. Not exactly.” Red tried not to smile. “We were taking back something that belongs to someone else. Besides, she doesn’t belong to anyone, not even her father. And you didn’t catch me … I’m here of my own free will.” He quietly hoped that hadn’t been a mistake.
A moment of silence. “All true,” the man on the other side of the lights admitted. “Which makes the situation even more interesting. If you could have avoided us, then why have you…?”
“I want to try to work things out.” This time Red smiled. “It’s not smart to get on your bad side. Everyone knows that. And if the Crew had known you had anything to do with this, we wouldn’t have taken the job in the first place.”
A quiet laugh. For an instant, Red caught a glimpse of a face white as comet ice, eyes the color of the Martian sky. Then the face retreated back into the darkness. “No, I’m not someone to be trifled with, Captain McGee. And that brings us back to my original question. The job…”
“The job was to find Cozy and bring her home. That simple. Her father hired us. Finding her wasn’t a problem. But getting her back —” Red let out his breath “— well, I guess that’s why I’m here, isn’t it?”
It only made sense that the men who’d kidnapped Cosette Trudeau would head for Ceres. There were few other places they could have gone once they’d left the Moon. Cislunar traffic control hadn’t reported any vessels on an earthbound trajectory during the time-frame in which the abduction occurred that matched witness descriptions of the one that had lifted off from the Trudeau family’s private estate just outside Descartes City. Mars was currently at opposition on the other side of the Sun from Earth; Jupiter was too far away, and no one but the mad and the desperate go to Venus. Ceres was in conjunction, though, making it conveniently accessible for a deep-space craft fleeing for the outer system, and as the largest port between Mars and Jupiter, Ceres Station is the jump-off point for the rest of the belt.
So it made sense that the kidnappers would dock at Ceres Station, wait for its orbit to take it within distance of their ultimate destination — wherever that may be — then make the final sprint to whatever rockhound hideaway was awaiting them.
Unless, of course, Antoine Trudeau decided to pay the one million lox ransom the kidnappers had demanded in the laser transmission received by the Lunar Air Company twenty-four hours after three heavily-armed men took the girl from her crater home. By then, pere Trudeau had already made that very decision. His people got in touch with the Crew and told Red McGee that he was willing to pay an identical sum to have his daughter brought back to him, plus expenses.
“I wonder why he didn’t just pay the ransom.” the voice behind the lights said. “It would have been easier.”
“But he’d lose face that way, wouldn’t he?” Red replied. “Money’s not a problem for someone like that, but reputation …well, that’s another matter, isn’t it? If it got out that one of the wealthiest men in the system could be horned out of a million lox by a bunch of lowlifes…” He shrugged. “So of course he’d rather hire someone to retrieve his little girl.”
“Of course. Go on. You figured out they were headed for Ceres…”
And wasted no time getting there. In fact, Wormtown Sally reached Ceres Station just hours after its traffic control center reported the arrival of a light-cargo freighter christened the Olympus Dreamer. Full thrust at 1-g had seen to that. Indeed, Sally could have even overtaken the Dreamer if Red had known for sure that it was the ship they were chasing, but it wasn’t until a friendly source at Ceres Traffic informed him that the freighter’s crew hadn’t left their vessel but instead were still inside that Red was certain — reasonably certain, at least — that the Dreamer was the right ship. And besides, rendezvousing and docking with another spacecraft is nearly impossible when both ships are under thrust.
So Wormtown Sally — itself another converted freighter, albeit with upgraded gas-core nuclear engines and with plasma-beam cannons concealed within its forward hull — quietly approached Ceres and, with the cooperation of the friendly trafco guy (“who received a nice finder’s fee for his tip,” Red added), slid into berth adjacent to the Dreamer. And even before the massive outer doors closed behind Sally, the Crew was getting ready to earn its pay.
There were four men in the Crew: Red, Raphael Coto, Jack Dog Jones, and Breaker. Tough guys. Hardasses. Red, Raphael, and Jack Dog were Pax Astra Royal Navy vets, while no one knew any more about Breaker’s background than they did his real name. They suited up in the airlock ready-room — body armor fitted with holo projectors, straps stuffed with tear gas and stun grenades — and then they loaded their flechette rifles, cycled through the portside hatch, and quietly went down the ladder.
Wormtown Sally and Olympus Dreamer lay side by side upon their retractable berths within Ceres’s cavernous spaceport. The docking tunnels had been repressurized after the ships came in. Dock workers and ‘bots unloaded cargo and performed routine maintenance on other vessels berthed in adjacent tunnels, but no one was in sight near the two ships.
Peering through the narrow access tunnel leading from Sally’s berth to Dreamer’s, the four men studied the other ship. A ladder had been lowered from the port side, and fuel lines had been connected to the tank cluster, but the hatches remained shut. The lights were on in the command deck windows and side portholes, yet no one could be seen through them. No signs of exterior weapons; no sentries. If the people aboard were waiting it out, they weren’t taking any precautions.
“I guess they thought playing possum was enough,” Red said. “That was the first clue we had that we were dealing with amateurs.”
They had cutting tools, but Red decided that there was an easier way to get aboard. He removed his armor and all his weapons except for a flechette pistol, which he stuck in his belt just above his butt. Then he rolled up his shirt sleeves, took a pad from a trouser pocket, and sauntered through the tunnel to the Dreamer. While the rest of the Crew watched, he went up the ladder and pounded a fist against the airlock hatch until it slid open a few inches and a wary face peered out at him.
“A kid … it was just a kid.” Red grinned and shook his head, still not quite believing what he was seeing. “I mean, I was expecting another pro, but this guy looked like he’d just learned how to shave. And totally gullible, too. He completely bought it when I told him I was with port authority and was there to perform a routine inspection.”
“That’s all it took to get him to open the hatch?”
“Yup, that’s it. And as soon as he did…”
If a flechette pistol a few inches from his face wasn’t enough to frighten the kid, then the sight of the Crew as they charged from the tunnel must have scared the crap out of him. Red’s team had been having fun with the holo projectors ever since they acquired them for covert work; the images they’d chosen for this job were scanned from stuff they’d found in old movies. So Jack Dog looked like a blue-skinned Plutonian from The Man from Planet X, Raphael was a claw-handed alien with a protruding brain from This Island Earth, and Breaker was the amphibious monster from Creature from the Black Lagoon. He was still staring at them with gape-mouthed astonishment as they charged up the ladder, and probably would have surrendered without a fight even if Breaker hadn’t decked him with one punch. The kid bounced off the airlock wall and slid to the floor, and the rest was easy.
Ridiculously, stupidly easy. The Crew made their way through the Dreamer, rifles raised as they checked one compartment after another. There were three more crew members aboard, and all three were taken by surprise, one at a time. Apparently none of them had anticipated anything like this; they weren’t armed, and the guy they found in the head with his pants around his ankles even went down on his knees to beg Jack Dog for his life. It was just pathetic; Jack Dog didn’t even bother to hit him, just told him to pull his pants up and stop blubbering.
The Dreamer’s captain was having coffee in the rec room with Cosette when the Crew found them. Red expected to find the heiress locked in a stateroom, bound and gagged, possibly ravished, doubtless terrified. Instead, it was if this was an afternoon tea rudely interrupted. She wore a white silk dress that clung to her in a very fetching matter, silver-streaked raven hair flowing halfway down her back, and she looked very much like a young lady who’d have Cozy as her nickname.
Her reaction surprised everyone. They dropped their squeezebulbs as soon as the Crew came through the door, but while the captain immediately held up his hands, Cozy whipped out a taser hidden in a calf holster beneath her dress. She dropped Jack Dog and was about to take down Red as well before he lobbed a stun grenade into the room. Breaker and Raphael dragged Jack Dog from the room — the taser charge had shorted out his projector, making him appear human again — while Red disarmed the girl. Then he waited until she, the captain, and Jack Dog regained their senses.
The captain’s name was Morton, Cyril Morton, and he’d alternated between apoplexy and apology: outraged that his ship had been invaded and his crew beaten up — except for the kid in the toilet, who deserved nothing but contempt — but also embarrassed that he’d been caught so easily. Jack Dog put him down on the floor and held a gun to the back of his head while Raphael and Breaker took the girl and — against her will, protesting angrily every step of the way — hustled her out of the Dreamer and back to Sally.
Red wanted an explanation for all this. By then it had become obvious that, if this was really a kidnapping, it was the lamest in history. But the Crew couldn’t afford to stick around; Ceres port authority might get wind of what had just happened, and Red didn’t want to have to talk his way out of a situation he didn’t quite understand himself. Besides, the only person he could count on to for the truth about this alleged abduction was its alleged victim: Cosette Trudeau, the heiress to the Lunar Air fortune.
So he went forward to Dreamer’s bridge and used a fire extinguisher to batter the instrument panels into junk, thereby making certain Morton wouldn’t give them any trouble on the way out. Then he and Jack Dog hurried back to Sally, and within minutes they’d disembarked from Ceres and were headed back out into space.
“And that brings me to you,” he said to the man seated behind the lights.
“And so it does,” replied Mister Chicago.
Pasquale Chicago stood up from his chair and strolled across the darkened room to where Red McGee sat. Red could see him clearly once he stepped into the light: tall and thin, with the white skin and long platinum hair of an albino.
“As I recall,” Mister Chicago went on, “you said she’d told you that I’d kidnapped her. Correct?”
“That’s right, yes.”
Mister Chicago nodded as he reached into a breast pocket of his black tunic and pulled out a cigar. Red shook his head when it was offered to him, and Mister Chicago clipped the cigar with a tiny gold guillotine and let one of his men light it for him. He took his time, knowing it was his to waste.
“I did not,” he said at last, exhaling smoke that became blue haze drifting upward into the light. “Fact is, I barely even know Ma’moiselle Trudeau . I’ve had some dealings with her father in the past, yes, but the last time I saw her, she was barely this tall.” His left hand lifted slightly, to the height of his waist. “And abducting her would be … shall we say, bad for business?”
Red nodded. Mister Chicago was known throughout the system as an underworld kingpin, a criminal mastermind who’d managed to become virtually untouchable. It wasn’t even certain that Pasquale Chicago was his real name. Rumor had it that he’d once been a senior government official in the Pax Astra treasury before fleeing with a considerable fortune for the outer solar system, where he’d established a permanent residence on the asteroid 4442 Garcia. His organization, the Zodiac, had a hand in every smuggling and black market operation between Venus and Jupiter, but Red had never heard of him kidnapping heiresses for ransom.
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “To be honest, this sort of thing is beneath you.”
A wry smile. “It is … and thank you for giving me the benefit of the doubt.” Mister Chicago took a luxurious pull from his cigar. “And even if I had, I wouldn’t have used men as amateurish as those you describe.”
“We didn’t think so either, but…” Red hesitated. “Well, we had to make sure you weren’t involved. That’s why I sent a message requesting a parlay, and you…”
“Invited you to my home. I prefer to discuss such weighty issues face to face, but nonetheless I appreciate your taking the effort to travel all this way.”
Red was beginning to relax a little, yet he remained on his guard. While Wormtown Sally was docked with 4442 Garcia, he and the Crew were at Mister Chicago’s mercy, present hospitality notwithstanding. “Only wanted to make certain that we weren’t going to have any misunderstandings.”
“We don’t, but…” Mister Chicago blew a delicate smoke ring at the ceiling. “Nonetheless, we still have an issue that needs to be addressed. Why did she pretend to be abducted, if that is indeed what appears to be the case? And why did she claim that I was responsible?”
Before Red could respond, he turned away, lifting a hand to his face to gently prod his right cheekbone and murmur something under his breath. A subcutaneous comlink connected him to someone outside the room. “Perhaps we should ask dear Cosette herself,” he said, turning to Red again.
A few moments went by, then a door silently slid open and two figures were briefly silhouetted against the light from the corridor outside. The door shut once more and Cosette Trudeau was escorted into the luminescent circle by another one of Mister Chicago’s henchmen. She wore the standard-issue ship’s jumpsuit instead of the silk outfit she’d been wearing on Ceres, but she still looked delectable, if nervous.
“Pasquale…” she began.
“Mister Chicago.” His pale eyes seemed to darken as they settled upon her. “It’s been many years since we met, Cozy, and I’m afraid you’d taken advantage of our brief acquaintance. You have much to explain, my dear.”
Her slim shoulders fell and she quickly looked away. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly, and the arrogance she’d shown Red aboard Wormtown Sally seemed to dissipate. “I thought that if … if I managed to make my way out here, you’d …I hoped you’d want me, that’s all.”
Red stared at Cosette, not quite believing what he’d just heard. Until now, he’d been impressed with her. Smart enough to fake her own kidnapping, courageous enough to take on four armed men with only a taser, wily enough to try pinning everything on the most successful crime lord in space … and why? A foolish crush on a man she’d met once as a little girl?
“It doesn’t make sense,” he murmured. “I’m not buying it.”
“Neither am I.” Mister Chicago dropped his cigar — it fell slowly in 4442 Garcia’s low gravity, and one of his minions swooped in to snatch it before it hit the floor — and stepped closer, looking her straight in the eye. “Cozy, my sweet, you’re not that stupid. Please don’t pretend to be. What were you really trying to do?”
Cosette looked up at him again and slowly let out her breath. “All right, okay,” she said, no longer contrite and innocent. “I’ll admit it … I was just trying to get away from Papa.” Her lovely mouth ticked upward a bit. “And make a little money off him, too.”
“Ah. I think I begin to understand.” Crossing his arms, Mister Chicago regarded her dispassionately. “You staged your own abduction in hopes that I’d willingly accept the blame for it, provided that your father paid the ransom. And what did you expect me to do? Split the money with you?”
A shrug. “I was thinking fifty-fifty.”
“Half a million lox?” Mister Chicago closed his eyes, shook his head. “Do you realize just how little a half-million lox means to me? Besides the fact that I’d make an enemy of your father, who supplies me with oxygen along with just about everyone else in the system.”
Cosette pouted. “It was just a thought.”
“Who were those guys who nabbed you … pretended to nab you, that is?” Red leaned back in his chair. “I’m surprised they were able to get past the bodyguards … you do have bodyguards, I assume.”
“I do, but I gave them the night off. And Papa was in Tycho City on business, so I had the house to myself. Except for the servants, and I knew they wouldn’t do anything.” Cosette hesitated. “The one Breaker punched out in the airlock was a boy I was going with. The other two were his friends. The three of them hired Captain Morton.” She looked at Mister Chicago again. “I hope you’re not going to hold anything against them. They were just doing what I asked them to do.”
“If your friends can get home on their own, I’ll leave them alone. Morton will be informed by the Zodiac that his Ceres docking privileges have been revoked. You’ve never had much difficulty getting men to do what you want them to do, have you?”
A sly grin. “Not really, no.” The grin became coy smile as she inched a little closer. “Are you sure you’re not interested in having me, Pasquale. I’d be quite … grateful.”
Mister Chicago lay a gentle hand on her shoulder, pushed her back to where she’d been standing. “Ma’moiselle, I have plenty of girls and boys to amuse me already. And I’m not in the practice of taking in urchins.”
The smile vanished and her shoulders sagged again. “Great. Just excellent. Guess that means I’m going to be dragged home.”
“What’s so bad about that?” Red was genuinely curious. “You’ve got it pretty well, so far as I can tell. A private lunar estate, more money than you know what to do with, boyfriends who’d crawl across Venus just to make you happy…”
“Yeah, right.” Her eyes flashed in anger. “Do you realize how boring all that is? I can’t go anywhere without Papa’s bodyguards, and the places I do go are just the same stupid places where the same stupid rich people hang out.” She sighed, looked at Mister Chicago again. “You want to know the truth? I didn’t particularly want you, either … I just wanted what I thought you be able to offer me. A life that wasn’t so goddamn dull.”
Mister Chicago didn’t say anything for a moment. Tapping a finger against his lips, he regarded her thoughtfully. “Let me ask you something,” he said after a moment. “Captain McGee tells me you took out one of his men with one shot.”
“Yes, I did.” She glanced at Red. “I told Jack Dog I’m sorry, but I’m not sure he’s forgiven me.”
“He has … he’s just embarrassed you got the better of him, that’s all.” Red caught a sidelong look from Mister Chicago. “Come to think of it, though … where did you learn to shoot like that?
“One of Papa’s bodyguards trained me. Not that it was Papa’s idea, but …as I said, things get dull, and learning how to use a gun is more interesting than fixing my hair again.”
“I see. What else did he teach you?”
“Flechette and particle-beam rifles. Hand-to-hand combat. Basic assault and escape tactics.” She smiled. “Men like to do things for me.”
“Fascinating.” Mister Chicago turned to Red. “I think I have an idea.”
“And so do I,” Red replied.
Feet propped up on the main console, coffee mug nestled in his lap, Red McGee sat in Wormtown Sally’s bridge. Through the bow windows, he saw a lone figure in a moonsuit step through of the Trudeau estate’s main airlock and, carrying a shoulder bag, began walking across the landing pad.
“Prime the engines, Raphael,” he said. “I think we’re about ready to go.”
Raphael Coto grinned as he leaned forward in the co-pilot’s seat and began flipping switches. Red pulled out his pad and ran a finger across its screen. He smiled when he saw the Crew’s current balance at the Pax Royal Bank. Just as he’d expected, l1,000,000 had been transferred to their account from the Lunar Air Company. Antoine Trudeau had met his obligations, just as the Crew had met theirs.
Nonetheless, he wasn’t quite getting everything that he wanted.
A low hum was passing through the hull as Red got up from his seat and left the bridge. His steps took him down a ladder to Sally’s airlock. He arrived just it was cycling through. Jack Dog and Breaker were already there; they waited patiently in the ready room as the inner hatch opened and the person who’d left the crater home stepped through.
Cosette Trudeau had already removed her helmet. She dropped her bag on the deck, took a moment to shake out her hair, then pushed her helmet into the rack and began to peel off her suit. “Hi, guys. Thanks for waiting.”
“No problem.” Red traded a look with Jack Dog and Breaker. Jack Dog was openly admiring the slinky way she was discarding her suit — no one else could make getting rid of pressure gear look so sexy — while Breaker leaned against a bulkhead, arms crossed, studiously unimpressed. “Any difficulties on your end?”
“Not really. Papa’s grateful you got me back from those evil men, but he’s also pissed that I’m leaving.” An indifferent shrug. “What’s he going to do? He’s been telling me that I needed to find something to do besides hang around here, so…”
“Joining us probably wasn’t what he was expecting.”
“Life’s just full of little surprises.” Cozy racked the suit, reached for a pair of stikshoes. “So … do we have another job yet?”
“There’s always another job.” Jack Dog offered her a hand in putting on the adhesive-soled shoes, and seemed mildly perturbed when she wouldn’t let him. “Of course, you’ll need get a holo projector. It’s one of those kind of …”
“Way ahead of you.” Bending down, Cozy unzipped her bag, felt around inside, then produced a projector. “Got one already. Bought it for Halloween last year.”
“Yeah, okay, but you still pick a disguise.”
Standing up, Cosette ran her fingers across its control menu. “I sort of had one in mind.” She grinned. “Ever seen a movie called Alien?”
Before anyone could answer, she activated the projector. Red and Jack Dog stepped back in horror, and Breaker nearly bolted through the door.
“Like it?” Cozy asked.
“You’re going to fit right in,” Red said.
“The Heiress of Air” first appeared in Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera for a New Age, Edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt, November 2013.