Boss Slade stood behind the window of his high tower office on planet New Lithnia’s mining camp and watched Kudg, one of his Altairian overseers, whip a Kubraen slave worker. From up here, the slaves seemed little more than insects spread out on the gray, lifeless grounds of the lithium mine. A green channel of polluted water meandered between hills of salt that dotted the dry landscape.
Boss Slade scratched his elongated scaly green snout with a clawed hand and pulled down his sequined vest. He adjusted the gas tanks on his back to add a pleasant aroma of Altairian tuber hearts from his homeworld. His amber eyes narrowed as he watched the whipped slave sag and remain still. Blood gushed down the Kubraen’s back. Probably lost another one, he thought irritably as the overseer paused, studied the slave, and shook his head as he peered up at Boss Slade’s window.
Damn headstrong slaves! Slade thought. Couldn’t be helped. He turned from the window and smiled as he watched the silver chandelier catch sparks of light as it slowly rotated. Better to lose a few willful slaves than to chance open rebellion from the lot of them. He rapped his broad bumpy tail thoughtfully on the stone floor and lumbered to his desk. “Let’s see,” he mused and turned on his computer. “Two last week. One to infection after the lashing. One dead at the post. One so far this week.” He tapped the desk. “Nine in a month. Too many.” He hummed as he typed in the death certificate, and studied the screen.
“Time for recruitment.” He sat back and stared toward the window where the sound of crying and prayers wafted up from below. What he really needed was a telepath to act as an overseer. Someone to gain the trust of the slaves, and report back to him on any thoughts or whispered conversations about rebellion. This scatter-gun technique of punishing the slightest infraction was losing him too many workers. The off-planet lithium mine owners would not be pleased if production slowed down. A pang of fear touched Boss Slade’s chest. They might even cut his own salary to make up for the losses. “Zora!”
“Yes, Boss Slade?” a raspy Altairian voice came through the computer speakers.
“Set up a meeting with my recruiters for tomorrow after morning feed.”
“Yes, sir. Will you be sending them off-planet to recruit?”
“No, Zora.” The fool, he thought. “I intend to kidnap local natives so their relatives and friends can attack the mine!" As though it wasn’t enough that the locals were demanding higher taxes from the mine. They just might vote to make slavery illegal. “Off-planet, Zora!”
“Yes, sir.” The voice came through on a submissive note. “I’ll get right on it, Boss Slade.”
He cut the contact. “Ye dummy pritcull!”
Lisa pulled on my jacket and glanced behind us.
“Those ladies we just passed....” She pointed behind us.
I looked back at three teenage girls who giggled as they watched me. I kept walking. “What about them, Lis’?”
“Well, when they went by, one of them looked at you and said ‘Nice ass’!”
“Uh, Lis’? You want an ice cream cone?”
She nodded and we walked toward a food stand. “You’re growing up a little fast for a six-year-old, you know.”
She covered her mouth and giggled.
The county fair outside Denver, Colorado, was in full swing this Sunday morning before Christmas. The air still held a crisp touch of fall, but winter was on its heels with frigid nights.
Crowds moved through aisles between food stands and freshly-painted rides. The lilting sounds of a Mariachi band mixed with the brash calls of vendors selling their wares. Smells of frying doughnuts and simmering hot dogs made my mouth water. I had just returned to Earth from a mission on Denebria, with its limited choice of Terran food. Such a cornucopia of smells was a feast for my senses.
I bought us two chocolate cones and stopped at a photo booth to take some photos of me and Lisa. I put a small one in my wallet and a larger one in my jacket for Abby and Joe, Lisa's grandparents. Then I led her toward the animal pens and corrals.
Before returning to Earth, I had detoured to planet Halcyon where Lisa and I had once been called by Spirit, the planet’s creator, to execute a Terran ravager, the dream czar. Lisa had inherited my tel abilities. Hers would be far more powerful someday with her ability to influence elements. Something I couldn’t do.
While on Halcyon, I’d met the love of my life, my Willa, who owned a ranch. Lisa had fallen in love with a mare named Ginger. I thought I’d found my home, but Willa was killed in a fire, and I helped execute the czar, who’d ordered the fire. Now, with a full credcount for my mission on planet Denebria, I bought my favorite horse from there, Asil, an Arabian stallion, and Ginger.
I think I was as excited as Lisa as we approached the corrals. I didn’t pay much attention to three scruffy-looking tags who leaned against the fence and watched us with more than passing interest.
“Race you there, Lis’!” I jogged ahead of her. Lisa flew past me. She came up short as we approached the corral, and stared. Then she swung around. “Daddy!”
“What, Lis’?” I caught up.
She pointed to Ginger, who was eating hay behind the fence. “That’s Ginger!”
I squinted. “Are you sure? How could that be Ginger?”
“It’s Ginger, Daddy.” She ran to the fence and climbed up the first rung. “It is. Look!”
“Well.” I approached. “It sure looks like Ginger. But what would Ginger be doing here?”
She stared at the mare, her mouth open, then went up on her toes. “Ginger!” she called.
The mare looked up as she munched a mouthful of hay.
“See, Daddy. It’s her.”
I smiled and pushed back blond curls off Lisa’s forehead. Her deep blue eyes widened. Her light, translucent skin flushed pink on her cheeks. Her lips broadened into that appealing smile. Joe Hatch, my former father-in-law, had said that every time he looked at me, he saw his granddaughter.
I felt Lisa’s light tel probe.
“Daddy, you brought her here.”
I smiled. “I told you I was bringing you a present, Squiggles.”
“Oh, Daddy!” She threw her arms around me and we almost fell. “I love you!”
I hugged her small, fragile body. “I love you too, Lisa. More than anything.”
I saddled Ginger, set Lisa on her back and climbed on behind her. We rode the outskirts of the fair until dark.
“What do you say, Lis’? It’s getting late,” I finally told her. “I think Ginger’s tired.” I knew I was.
She yawned. “OK.”
By the time I unsaddled Ginger, Lisa was asleep, stretched across bales of hay. I carried her to my hovair and drove back to Joe and Abby’s house, in Denver. The windows were lit and trimmed with glowing Christmas lights. A pine tree on the lawn was decked with more colored lights. But the streets were empty and dark. Paper cups and crinkled newspapers slid down the sidewalk in a wind. Most of the street lights were dark, shot out by old projectile weapons. Denver had taken a hit in the last fifty years and was a stronghold for criminals. But Joe and Abby lived in their first house and were too stubborn to give in to the decadence, and move out.
My laser beam stingler, a handheld weapon, was in the console compartment, fully charged. I picked up Lisa and carried her the short distance from the aircraft parking lot to Joe and Abby’s front door, and rang the bell. I heard laughter from the living room. I knew that my former wife, and Lisa’s mom, Althea, was there with her new husband Charles.
I bit my lip as I waited.
Joe came to the door with a glass of eggnog in his hand. “Did you tags have a fun day?”
“I think so. She wore us both out.” I glanced over his shoulder and saw Althea walk toward the kitchen. She turned and looked at me. She was as beautiful as ever, with her auburn hair, her delicate features. And she was pregnant.
Joe glanced back. “I’d invite you in, but....” He scratched his white stubble. “Might not be a good time.”
I shook my head and handed him Lisa.
“Where you off to?” he asked.
Good question, I thought. “Got to get back to the Los Alamos Lab. I start work there tomorrow.”
He nodded. “Will you be back after Christmas, to take Lisa out for the day?”
“Sure. Wouldn’t miss it. Oh.” I took the large photo from my jacket pocket and handed it to him. “I thought you and Abby might like to keep this.”
He looked at it and smiled.
“Jules?” Abby called in her airy Southern drawl and shuffled down the hallway holding a small, white box. Abby is one of my favorite people. She smiled. “How are you, son?”
I held back tears. “I’m fine, Misses Hatch.”
“You look thin.”
I laughed. “No, it’s all muscle.”
She handed me the box. “I made this for you. It’s a mud pie. Your favorite, I think.”
My throat tightened as I took the box. I just nodded.
She must have seen the tears that glistened in my eyes. “Well, I’ve got cooking on the stove.” She stood on tiptoes and kissed my cheek. “Take care of yourself.”
I nodded again. “Joe,” I said, turned, and walked down the steps. I heard the door close quietly behind me and pictured the small furnished apartment I was headed for in Los Alamos.
A light sifting of snow whitened the street. I turned up my collar to the wind, lifted the hood on my jacket, and thrust my hands into my pockets as I walked toward the hovair. The street was long, dark, and empty. On both sides, houses sparkled with Christmas ornaments and decked trees.
Was that movement in the dark shadows between me and my hovair? I paused as three men emerged from between vehicles in the parking lot. It was too dark to tell, but they looked like the same scruffy tags from the corral fence. My heart beat a little faster, like a warning signal, as I strode toward my vehicle. The three spread out and approached me. One was tall, thin, all legs. The other two looked bulky.
Uh, oh. I stopped and took a step back.
They broke into a trot.
So did I.
What the hell did they want? I thought as I ran toward the corner, hoping I could disappear beyond it. As I slowed for the turn, I realized that they were closing. Who were these tags? I opened the box as I ran and threw the mud pie in the leggy one’s path. He slid on it. His legs went up and he slammed onto the ground on his back.
That’s gotta hurt, crote, I thought.
I ran across a lawn, at an angle around the house, and fell over a bicycle lying on the ground. I skidded face first into the grass and tried to get up, but my pants cuff was caught in the spokes. “Christ and Buddha!” I yanked on the cuff. Too late. They were on me.
“What do you want?” I yelled. “You want my hovair? Here’s the key, OK?” I pulled it out of my jacket pocket and threw it. “Go fetch!”
While one of them pulled my cuff from between the spokes, the leggy tag limped over and kicked me in the butt. “You bastard!”
“Gee, sorry about that.” I rubbed my butt. “What do you crotes want?” I stood up. “I don’t have any greens on me. Just a credcount.”
A light blinked on in a window of the house. I saw a shadow peer out. Then the light went out. Mother fucker, I thought. Let’s not get involved.
The two bulky ones took my arms and led me toward the parking lot.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
When we reached my hovair, one said “Open the door.”
“I left the key back there.”
“No, I’ve got it,” another said and unlocked the door. He pushed me into the passenger seat, sprang the glove compartment and took out my stingler.
“Dammit,” I muttered.
“Ah, too bad,” he said, and waved it in my face.
He strapped me into the seat belts, took out a scarf, made a blindfold, and tied it around my eyes. I heard the doors slam and the engine whir to life. As the craft lifted, I inched my hands toward the scarf.
“Touch that,” the driver said, “and I’ll slam you across your head with your own gun.”