by Roberta Gellis
Five Star Books August 2004
Cyn Lystris leaves Free Trade to join Overstars Mail because he is tired of making deliveries with the goods in one hand and his blaster in the other. What could be more peaceful than carrying letters and parcels on a government-approved route? However, life as a mailman proves no less exciting than life in Free Trade when Cyn finds himself embroiled in Imperial politics. Cyn has no interest at all in the political problems of the Empire, and he particularly wishes to avoid any involvement with a younger son of the Mother Empress who intends to challenge his corrupt brother, the Emperor, for the throne. But agents who want to capture or kill the prince also threaten Cyn's beloved ship--his precious Piss Pot--and he isn't having any of that!
- AN INNOCENT MAILMAN
- Cyn Lystris had been born a Free Trader. Where he got his taste for sweet music, soft lights, and willing women, his family cannot guess. Free Traders most often arrive on planets with unbreathable atmospheres, inedible edibles, and inimical aliens. Thus, when Cyn finds a chance to join Overstars Mail, the Imperial postal service, which will permit him to spend most of his time in space but have several days of layovers on civilized planets between hops, his parents and friends on Lystris wish him godspeed and promise to keep in touch.
- AN ELEGANT SALESWOMAN
- Frefem Aimee looks like just the kind of woman Cyn can hope to convince to while away some of the dull sdays of travel in his bed. Maybe her eyes are as hard as the jewels on her belt, but the expression in them certainly indicates she is interested in him, and the curves displayed under her gorgeous gold jumpsuit look nice and soft. How can Cyn guess that she has a business quite different from selling the exquisite and very expensive fashions designed by Vie Parer?
- THE BEAST IN THE CAGE
- It is a huge cage, large enough to fill the whole cargo space in the shuttle, and Cyn has been specifically warned not to release the covers that shroud it and alarm its occupant. But when the shuttle is badly battered and the only sounds the beast makes are little whimpers, Cyn has to discover whether it is hurt. All Cyn finds in the cage, though, is a barely nubile, very beautiful girl. How can she be so dangerous that she has to be delivered to a planet full of dragons locked in a cage?
Excerpt from OVERSTARS MAIL: IMPERIAL CHALLENGE
At the time he had left the Pot, the message bin had been empty; now there were two sheets of plas in it. Cyn reached for them with a frown. If Lystris had an emergency that required two messages ... But the topmost sheet, to Cyn's surprise, was headed by the comet-tailed OM of Official Communications. He scanned rapidly and his brows shot up in surprise.
He said the word aloud, grinning. By the Powers that Be, did the Imperial Postmaster think they were back in the old days of ships that sailed the waters? Had whatever being was Postmaster taken leave of its senses?
Carroll's equations coiled space up quite safely, but no one could tell at what point a ship would emerge on the sphere that made up the carrollpause of the target solar system. It would take an armada to patrol such a sphere of space, even if someone had a copy of a mail ship's routing--which was why Cyn knew it was safe to send his to Lystris. And even an armada could not patrol closely enough to catch the Pot or any sister ship running at speed. Only if a ship were within tractor range when the Pot came out of the Void could she be trapped.
At 4 stu, Cyn brought the shuttle down to the spaceport to pick up the passengers and the "large caged beast." The passengers, Cyn thought, were a particularly motley group. Then he chided himself inwardly for lack of charity. From a lifetime of rotating periods of duty, all stus of the sday and night were about the same to him. For these people however, it was barely dawn and they could scarcely be at their best.
He greeted them politely, gave his standard little speech apologizing for the lack of amenities aboard his ship, mentioned his inability to do anything to mitigate the spartan conditions, and asked them if they would like to cancel their travel plans and ship out on a passenger vessel. As usual, everyone assured him they were prepared. Cyn nodded and turned away, ostensibly to watch the approach of the large cargo robo carrying the caged "whatever." Actually he wanted the freedom to let his face express his mingled disgust and disbelief.
When his expression was under control, he directed the passengers into the shuttle, told them to take seats, and instructed them how to strap in for the shuttle trip--all without really seeing them. Doubtless, he thought sourly, he'd have all too many chances to look at them over the next swiks. Then he went out again, directed the small robo to bring in the baggage, and finally brought in the large robo.
Cyn watched as the cage was gently settled into the cargo area and secured. He checked the chain bolts twice himself, a little disturbed by the utter silence behind the curtains. Now he was sorry he hadn't taken the time to investigate the cage the previous night, but the instructions had specifically said not to disturb or excite the animal by removing the curtains. He could only hope that the creature was well protected and lift off gently.
His care won him a twittering compliment from the only passenger who seemed wide awake. Frefem Rocam was a small, thin, elderly fem dressed in an ultraconservative dark suit with a bit of white lace at the throat. The only notable thing about her, aside from her bright-eyed alertness, was her hat. Tied square on top of her head with a swathe of veiling, it was a flat, black pancake topped with the body, head, and wings of a glossy black bird. The creature could have been alive, except for its immobility and the fact that it did not appear to have any legs.
"Such consideration," Frefem Rocam chirped to the much younger fem strapped in beside her. "It's my first trip and, although I'm not frightened--indeed, I've been looking forward to it--somehow all the talk about how fast the mail ships travel made me think it would be a rather bumpy ride."
Cyn could see the younger fem's head turn in the mirror above his console. The mirror, specially surfaced so that it looked like a dull metal strip from any position except his own, permitted the pilot to watch the cargo and passenger section without turning his head. It was set up so the mail-carrier could forestall any silly moves, like unstrapping in freefall, or render aid to anyone seriously affected by weightlessness.
He must have missed that one when he called the group motley, Cyn thought. Her travel wear was really something--a jumpsuit of dully glistening gold that concealed and yet clung revealingly from throat to ankle and still managed to give a definite impression of toughness and utility. No loose ends to float in freefall, tangle in straps, or catch on things in close quarters. As she shifted, Cyn caught a glimpse of a wide brown belt studded with dark gems. He was willing to bet credits against minims that those gems were chips, and that what they controlled was housed in the elegant pouch secured by straps to the fem's shoulder and hip.
She turned, smiled, and said, "I'm Fr. Aimie. He is lifting off a little slower than usual, probably because he doesn't want to frighten the animal in the cage and set it squalling, but it wouldn't be a bumpy liftoff in any case. These mail-carriers are like lift operators. They go up and down so often, a smooth ride is almost a habit."
"You sound as if you've traveled on these ships very often."
"Almost as often as the mail-carriers, I think," Fr. Aimie replied with a chuckle. "I work for Vie Parer, and fashions are only fashions when they're hot. If you get there the firstest, you make the mostest."
That accounted for the lacquered perfection. Cyn regarded her with some interest. Right now he wasn't hungry, but she would be aboard to Mantra. Very often the professional fems that traveled the spaceways were not averse to a little light dalliance to while away the dull sdays. An interesting contrast to Myrrha, Cyn thought. The nymph was all genuine friendly responsiveness; Fr. Aimie was probably hard as the gems on her belt--as polished, and possibly just as fake: Glossy chestnut hair, its brown fired with red where the light touched it, was dressed and frozen into the elaborate swirls of the highest fashion. Her skin was pale; cosmetically shielded from all radiation, no doubt. Her lips were full and dyed very red. Cyn couldn't determine the color of her eyes because of the way the mirror reflected, but he was sure whatever the color they would be bright and unrevealing.
"From Vie Parer, eh?" a bulky man across the aisle remarked. "We might have a lot in common."
"Don't tell me I have a rival aboard," Fr. Aimie groaned with mock dismay. "I thought I was way ahead on this jump."
The man laughed. "Fremale Demoson, and this is my assistant Fr. Wakkin. No, I'm no rival for Vie Parer, but I am interested in your business--financially interested. Fact is, I'm headed for Mantra for the meeting of the GMA."
Something flickered across the fem's face very swiftly. Had Cyn not been studying her features intently--with only the most dishonorable motives--he would not have seen the fleeting change of expression before a look of horror was deliberately fixed on her face.
"Oh, help!" she exclaimed. "Pilot, I want to unstrap. I have to triple lock my sample cases. There's a thief aboard! Do you know what members of the GMA do? They come to fashion shows, steal our ideas, and turn out 2-credit versions of 200-credit items."
Cyn had swiveled his seat slowly, well aware that the fem was merely indulging in a little barbed humor. The look that had so briefly crossed her face had, however, nothing to do with either humor or the real sense of grievance the joke covered--unless Cyn was mistaken in what he thought he saw. Once out of the atmosphere Cyn only faced his console to allow passengers who were ignorant to feel comfortable because the pilot was "flying" the ship. Actually, aside from landing and docking, the shuttle was almost completely automated and Cyn had little to do but cancel a maneuver he didn't like or let the shuttle alone. Now he turned because he was more interested in watching his passengers' faces directly than reassuring them.
"I cannot allow that, Frefem," he responded, smiling, "but I will allow you to leave the shuttle first so you may be sure of being present when the robos bring in the baggage."
"Now, now," Demoson interjected, "that's not fair. We don't steal the stuff, and you know it. We pay through the nose for the right to reproduce." He shrugged. "I guess the people in sales get the raw end of that deal, but I assure you your front office loves us dearly. We profit, they profit--and you know that a lot of them wouldn't be in business at all without us--and Everybeing can afford to wear the latest rage."
"Yes, but I don't think that's a good idea at all," the little old lady in the funny hat put in before Aimie could answer. "Not everyone profiting, of course--that's a fine idea--but everybeing wearing the latest fashion. High fashion is nearly always extreme and most of it is most unsuitable to anyone who isn't young and beautiful."
"I'm afraid my motives aren't as pure as yours," Aimie said, "but I agree with you completely. I don't think high fashion is for Everybeing."
"Oh, no," Fr. Rocam twittered, "my motives aren't really pure--not if you mean that my modesty is offended by high fashion. It's my taste. Just think of me in that very lovely suit you're wearing."
A guffaw burst briefly from the short, rotund, pink-faced fellow in the rear seat. The tall, saturnine-looking man opposite glared at him.
"I beg your pardon, Frefem," the little man muttered, abashed.
"There's no need to beg my pardon," the little old lady said with a decidedly impish grin. "You've made my point. For me to wear a suit that is completely becoming on Fr. Aimie would be dreadful. Really, beings should be protected against making such fools of themselves."
"But that would be far worse than looking silly!" the young man called Wakkin burst out. "To deny freedom of choice, even wrong choice--as long as it does no harm to anyone else--"
Demoson laughed aloud and grinned. It was a surprisingly boyish expression that lent considerable charm to his heavy face. "Now, you see, that's just what GMA does. It provides freedom of choice and actively prevents harm--"
"Don't all choices bring some harm with them?" the saturnine faced man interrupted, his mouth twisted.
Demoson laughed again. "There's harm and harm. After all Fr. Rocam can look away if her taste is offended, but if a fem or male drove its spouse to suicide or to breaking a mating contract because it couldn't get one of the real Vie Parer outfits, that would surely be worse harm. If you want to restrain someone Fr. Aimie, and put us out of business, it's the right to send carrollpics you should complain about. If no one saw the styles no one would want them."
"Do you think there was no high fashion before star travel?" Aimie asked.
"Oh, dear," Fr. Rocam sighed, "I didn't mean to start an argument. I was joking!"
As everyone turned to assure her that they had understood, that they were not arguing, merely having a friendly discussion on a subject of particular interest, Cyn swing his chair back to face his console. A number of the remarks had--in the light of what he suspected--given him food for thought. While he made mental notes of Rocam's casual statement about protecting beings against themselves, Wakkin's outburst, and the sardonic man's remark--Hachisman, Cyn recalled from his list--his eyes were automatically scanning his instruments. All systems were green, speed and approach to the Pot were right on, no signs of ... But there were! The rs screen showed two widely spaced blips.
Pursuit? But it was the mail ships themselves that had disappeared. The Postmaster said nothing about attacks on the shuttles. Cyn watched, thinking about what he could do. The shuttle was completely without defenses and no faster than any standard model. Of course, ground control was watching, but that wouldn't do him any good if all they did was report ... If they reported he had been pursued or seized at all. They hadn't warned him he was being followed!
Cyn moved the speed control forward cautiously, not wanting to alarm the passengers. The blips began to fade, but before Cyn could breathe out his relief they began to grow again. Pursuit then; if not they wouldn't have increased speed too. Cyn checked the distance to the Pot and swallowed an oath. If he accelerated any more the gravity compensators in the shuttle wouldn't be able to deal with the deceleration necessary to match the Pot's orbital speed. And it wouldn't help anyway. Even if he had extra speed he was too close to the Pot to outrun his pursuers before he reached her.
The moment he thought it, Cy had to set his teeth to keep from cursing himself aloud. He had forgotten one essential thing because of his "clever" conviction that the passengers were involved in the mail-ship disappearances. He had forgotten that the Pot was most vulnerable when the shuttle approached it. The hangar opened automatically when it picked up the shuttle's signal. Any other ship, or even a man in a suit, could slip inside and open the emergency hatch into the ship itself.
But not whoever was behind him, Cyn realized. The blips had kept pace, but neither had deviated from the original path to intercept. Cyn blushed under his deep tan and hoped none of the passengers could see his ears burning. The Postmaster had used an ancient word that evoked drama and mystery--pirates--and he, fool that he was, had generated a melodrama in his head. If he had the brains of a segmented worm he would have realized that two blips like that had to be guards assigned to make sure the shuttle was not intercepted.
Not a total gain. The fact that the following ships were guards only increased the possibility that one or more of the passengers intended to capture the Pot. Cyn quietly activated the small force field designed to protect the pilot and console from accident. It was a serious drain of energy, but would protect him until the passengers were actually aboard. Once inside the metal shell of his ship, Cyn felt the advantages were all with him. He had already taken certain precautions, and he knew the Pot--every nook and cranny, every nut and bolt, almost every electron and positron. He couldn't believe that anyone could beat him at any game played inside the Pot. He kept one eye on the blips, which maintained their distance, but gave his primary attention to a smooth deceleration and docking that would eat up the least power.
Cyn was almost disappointed when all the passengers sat quietly while the hangar closed on the shuttle. He finished his checks, and flipped the relay that transmitted the psuedogravity from the ship to the shuttle. While the passengers' seats rotated to the new upright position and the debarkation ladder slid down the aisle, Cyn unsealed the airlock between the vessels and closed the switch that slid the doors aside. Since pressure and temperature were already equal, both opened immediately onto the corridor that led directly to the passenger level. Just as Cyn started to swing around to tell the passengers to unstrap, a violent blow struck the ship.
He was flung sideways against the console and then held there as the Pot was dragged forcefully out of orbit and drawn along. However no shock could break the training that in generations of space travel had become almost a phylogenetic instinct. Even before his brain had caught up with what had happened, Cyn's eyes flew to the telltales. No damage. All glowed a steady green. Ignoring the shrill shriek startled out of Fr. Rocam and the oaths from the men, Cyn forced himself into his seat over the pull of the acceleration. He closed the doors of the airlock and shoved his thumb against the plate under the console that would connect the shuttle to the ship-puter, which he instructed to transfer rs and other visuals to the shuttle's screens.
Only then did Cyn have time to realize they had been caught by a tractor beam. He hadn't considered that possibility because neither of the pursuing ships had been close enough nor indicated mass enough for traction--not of the force that had been applied. And then Cyn spat an oath and flung his hands up to protect his eyes. A tiny sun had blossomed out on the real-space visual he had scarcely glanced at in his concentration on the rs blips. Almost simultaneously, two further shocks hit the ship--the first when the tractor beam was released and the second when the Pot's engines fired briefly but violently to counter the applied pull and reachieve orbit.
Cyn snapped the relays that reopened the airlock doors. "Right," he snapped. "Demoson, unstrap and out into the ship. Quick as you can move."
The heavyset man reached for the straps, but before he could pull the release, Hachisman began to rise. He had one leg out in the aisle on the ladder, but he never actually freed himself from the curve of the seat. As he turned, Cyn had cancelled the force field and a stunner had appeared in his hand as if by magic. Hachisman sank back with staring eyes.
"When I give an order on my ship, it's obeyed," Cyn snarled. "Demoson, out! Wakkin, out!" As Wakkin's heels cleared the rung of the ladder level with Hachisman's head, Cyn gestured with the stunner. "Now, Hachisman, out. Sorry about the gun, but I know what I'm doing." His eyes shifted to the little, round fellow. "Mortchose, out."
As soon as the smaller man cleared his position, Cyn dropped down past the two women. "Fr. Aimie, do you need help?" he asked. "Go then, now!" he said as she shook her head wordlessly.
When she was out, the gun disappeared into his tunic as fast as it had emerged and he bent and released Fr. Rocam's straps and helped her to her feet. After the single shriek she had uttered, the old lady had been silent, one hand pressed to her lips and the other, comically or pathetically, holding down her funny hat. She was probably light as the bird that perched on it, Cyn thought, and prepared to lift her.
"Thank you, pilot, but I'm quite capable of walking," she said calmly.
Rocam's tone was a shock. Cyn really looked at her and would have reached for his stunner again except that it was far too late. If the old lady had intended to take him, she would have done so already. He was a fool for mixing up age and apparent fragility with helplessness and would have deserved his fate if she had attacked him. Clearly she was capable of walking or of sliding a knife between his ribs, had she wished to do it. A nice pink color showed in her cheeks, and her eyes were bright. Cyn bit his lips to hold back a grin. He had suddenly realized why he thought her helpless. It was her determined clutch on her hat. As she climbed the ladder, Cyn did grin behind her back. People surely grew attached to the oddest oddities.
As soon as he had herded Fr. Rocam through the ship's lock, Cyn raised the manual lever to slam it shut. He had suddenly remembered his other responsibility--the beastie in the cage. Had they been in any danger, he would have had to ignore the creature, but Cyn had figured out what had happened and knew they would be safe for a while. Nor was the Pot in any danger from the passengers. Because some were curious as fflathores and some seemed to think they had bought the ship with the price of the passage, Cyn always locked the companionways to both cargo level and control level when he had passengers. That effectively imprisoned them on the passenger deck, and allowed him to take care of his duties without fearing that one of the idiots would try to adjust the heat in his cabin by pushing the Carrol's void switch or decide to get his own baggage out of a hold with no life support.
Cyn turned toward the cargo area, then hesitated. What he could do for anything that large if it had been hurt, he didn't know. Then he went down toward the end of the shuttle. If the beastie was hurt, he would insist someone come up from the planet to help it or take it dirtside again where it could be treated. He and his ship would be safer in the void, but he couldn't let a living creature, no matter what it was, suffer.
At that moment from behind the curtains came tiny, half stifled snuffles and whimpers. Cyn flung himself down the rest of the ladder. Oh, damn! It had been hurt. Cyn's heart contracted painfully; that anything so large should make such little muffled whimpers hinted at great timidity or serious injury. Singing a soft litany of curses, Cyn unfastened the curtains and flung them back.
A sensation of surprise so strong as to result in total paralysis gripped him. Finally his brain and body caught up with what his eyes were transmitting, and Cyn gasped.