Irene's green eyes had lost their coldness. She let her hand rest on his for a moment. But her voice was puzzled.
"This Dura-ki--she is the woman on the Hawk of Darion?"
Ransome nodded. He stood up. His lips were a hard, thin line.
"My little story has an epilogue. Something not quite so romantic. I lived with Dura-ki in hiding near Darion for a year, until a ship came in from space. A pirate ship, with a tall, good-looking Earthman for a master. I took passage for Dura-ki, and signed on myself as a crewman. A fresh start in a bright, new world." Ransome laughed shortly. "I'll spare you the details of that happy voyage. At the first port of call, on Jupiter, Dura-ki stood at the top of the gangway and laughed when her Captain Jareth had me thrown off the ship."
"She betrayed you for the master of the Hawk of Darion," Irene said softly.
"And tonight she'll pay," Ransome finished coldly. He threw down a few coins to pay for their drinks. "It's been pleasant telling you my pretty little story."
"Ransome, wait. I--"
"Forget it," Ransome said.
Mytor's car was waiting, and Ransome could sense the presence of the guards lurking in the dark, empty street.
"The spaceport," Ransome told his driver. "Fast."
He thought of the note he had given the crewman to deliver: "Ra-sed would see his beloved a last time before he dies."
"Faster," Ransome grated, and the powerful car leapt forward into the night.
Ships, like the men who drove them, came to Yaroto to die. Three quarters of the spaceport was a vast jungle of looming black shapes, most of them awaiting the breaker's hammer. Ransome dismissed the car and threaded his way through the deserted yards with the certainty of a man used to the ugly places of a hundred worlds.
Mytor had suggested the meeting place, a hulk larger than most, a cruiser once in the fleet of some forgotten power.
Ransome had fought in the ships of half a dozen worlds. Now the ancient cruiser claimed his attention. Martian, by the cut of her rusted braking fins. Ransome tensed, remembering the charge of the Martian cruisers in the Battle of Phoebus. Since then he had called himself an Earthman, because, even if his parentage had not given him claim to that title already, a man who had been in the Earth ships at Phoebus had a right to it.
He was running a hand over the battered plate of a blast tube when Dura-ki found him. She was a smaller shadow moving among the vast, dark hulls. With a curious, dead feeling in him, Ransome stepped away from the side of the cruiser to meet her.
"Ra-sed, I could not let you die alone--"
Because her voice was a ghost from the past, because it stirred things in him that had no right to live after all the long years that had passed, Ransome acted before Dura-ki could finish speaking. He hit her once, hard; caught the crumpling body in his arms, and started back toward Mytor's car. If he remembered another journey in the blackness with this woman in his arms, he drove the memory back with the savage blasphemies of a hundred worlds.
On the rough floor of Mytor's place, Dura-ki stirred and groaned.
Ransome didn't like the way things were going. He hadn't planned to return to the Cafe Yaroto, to wait with Mytor for the arrival of the priests.
"There are a couple of my men outside," Mytor told him. "When the priests are spotted you can slip out through the rear exit."
"Why the devil do I have to be here now?"
"As I have told you, I am a businessman. Until I have turned the girl over to the priests I cannot be sure of my payment. This girl, as you know, is not without friends. If Captain Jareth knew that she was here he would tear this place apart, he and his crew. Those men have rather an impressive reputation as fighters, and while my guard here--"
"You've been drinking too much of your own rotten liquor, Mytor. Why should I try to save her at the eleventh hour? To hand her back to her lover?"
"I never drink my own liquor, Mr. Ransome." He took a sip of his kali in confirmation. "I have seen love take many curious shapes."
Ransome stood up. "Save your memoirs. I want a guard to get me to the ship you promised me. And I want it now."
Mytor did not move. The guards, ranged around the walls, stood silent but alert.
"Yes, Mr. Ransome?"
"There isn't any ship. There never was."
The Venusian shrugged. "It would have been easier for you if you hadn't guessed. I'm really sorry."
"So you'll make a double profit on this deal. I was the bait for Dura-ki, and Irene was bait for me. You are a good businessman, Mytor."
"You are taking this rather better than I had expected, Mr. Ransome."
Ransome slumped down into his chair again. He felt no fear, no emotion at all. Somewhere, deep inside, he had known from the beginning that there would be no more running away after tonight, that the priests would have their will with him. Perhaps he had been too tired to care. And there had been Irene, planted by Mytor to fill his eyes, to make him careless and distracted.
He wondered if Irene had known of her role, or had been an unconscious tool, like himself. With faint surprise, he found himself hoping that she had not acted against him intentionally.
Dura-ki was unconscious when the priests came. She had looked at Ransome only once, and he had stared down at his hands.
Now she stood quietly between two of the black-robed figures, watching as others counted out gold coins into Mytor's grasping palm. Her eyes betrayed neither hope nor fear, and she did not shrink from the burning, fanatical stares of the priests, nor from their long knives. The pirate's consort was not the girl who had screamed in the dimness of the Temple when the Sacred Lots were cast.
A priest touched Ransome's shoulder and he started in spite of himself. He tried to steady himself against the sudden chill that seized him.
And then Dura-ki, who had called him once to blasphemy, now called him to something else.
"Stand up, Ra-sed. It is the end. The game is played out and we lose at last. It will not be worse than the pit of the Dark One."
Ransome got to his feet and looked at her. He no longer loved this woman but her quiet courage stirred him.
With an incredibly swift lunge he was on the priest who stood nearest Dura-ki. The man reeled backward and struck his skull against the wall. It was a satisfying sound, and Ransome smiled tightly, a half-forgotten oath of Darion on his lips.
He grabbed the man by the throat, spun him around, and sent him crashing into another.
A knife slashed at him, and he broke the arm that held it, then sprang for the door while the world exploded in blaster fire.
Dura-ki moved toward him. He wrenched at the door, felt the cold night air rash in. A hand clawed at the girl's shoulder, but Ransome freed her with a hard, well-aimed blow.
When she was outside, Ransome fought to give her time to get back to the Hawk of Darion. Also, he fought for the sheer joy of it. The air in his lungs was fresh again, and the taste of treachery was out of his mouth.
It took all of Mytor's guards and the priests to overpower him, but they were too late to save Mytor from the knife that left him gasping out his life on the floor.
Ransome did not struggle in the grip of the guards. He stood quietly, waiting.
"Your death will not be made prettier by what you have done," a priest told him. The knife was poised.
"That depends on how you look at it," Ransome answered.
"Absolutely," a hard, dry voice answered from the doorway.
Ransome turned his head and had a glimpse of Irene. With her, a blaster level in his hand, and his crew at his back, was Captain Jareth. It was he who had answered the priest's last question.
Mytor had said that Jareth's crew had an impressive reputation as fighters, and he lived just long enough to see the truth of his words. The priests and the guards went down before the furious attack of the men from the Hawk of Darion. Ransome fought as one of them.
When it was over, it was not to Captain Jareth that he spoke, but to Irene.
"Why did you do this? You didn't know Dura-ki, and you despised me."
"At first I did. That's why I agreed to Mytor's plan. But when I had spoken to you, I felt differently. I--"
Jareth came over then, holstering his blaster. Irene fell silent.
The big spaceman shifted uneasily, then spoke to Ransome.
"I found Dura-ki near here. She told me what you did."
"I sent her back to the ship with a couple of my men."
Abruptly, Jareth turned and stooped over the still form of Mytor. From the folds of the Venusian's stained tarab he drew a ring of keys. He tossed them to Ransome.
"This will be the first promise that Mytor ever kept."
"What do you mean?"
"Those are the keys to his private ship. I'll see that you get to it."
It was Irene who spoke then. "That wasn't all that Mytor promised him."
The two men looked at her in surprise. Then Ransome understood.
"Will you come with me, Irene?" he asked her.
"Where?" Her eyes were shining, and she looked very young.
Ransome smiled at her. "The Galaxy is full of worlds. And even the Dark One cancels his debts when the night of Bani-tai is over."
"Let's go and look at some of those worlds," Irene said.
IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T ...
By John Brudy
To Amos Jordan, Secretary for Cislunar Navigation, no situation was unsolvable. There were rules for everything, weren't there.... Except maybe this thing ...
"What's the matter, anyway?" Amos Jordan snapped at his assistant. "Is everyone in the Senate losing their mind?"
"No more than usual," said Clements, the undersecretary. "It's just a matter of sentiment."
"Sentiment?" Jordan poured himself a glass of lemonade. "What's sentiment got to do with it? It's just a standard procedural problem."
"Well, not exactly," began Clements soothingly. "After all, now, '58 Beta was the first long-lived satellite ever launched, and the first successful shot of the old Vanguard series. People are proud if it. It's a sort of monument to our early efforts in astronautics."
Jordan sipped experimentally, adding a little sugar.
"But, Clem, the sky's full of the things," he complained. "There must be a hundred fifty of them in orbit right now. They're a menace to navigation. If this one's due to fall out, I say good riddance."
Clements spread his hands helplessly.
"I agree, chief. But, believe me, a lot of people have made up their minds about this thing. Some want to let it burn up. Some want to retrieve it and stash it in a museum. Either way it's a decision we're not going to reach in this office."
Jordan tossed down the rest of his lemonade.
"I'd like to know why not," he snapped, almost bristling.
"Well, frankly this thing is moving pretty fast." Clements fished a facsimile sheet out of his jacket pocket. "Everybody's getting into the act." He handed the sheet across the desk. "Read this; it'll bring you up to date."
Jordan stared at the sheet.
"Senate Committee Probes Beta," ran the lead, followed by, "The Senate Advisory Committee for Astronautics began hearing testimony this morning in an effort to determine the fate of satellite '58 Beta. Mr. Claude Wamboldt, leader of the CCSB (Citizens' Committee to Save Beta), testified that the cost of retrieving Beta from orbit would be trivial compared to its value as an object of precious historical significance. He suggested the Smithsonian Institution as an appropriate site for the exhibit. At the same time the incumbent Senator from Mr. Wamboldt's district filed a bill in the Senate which would add a complete wing to the Smithsonian to house this satellite and other similar historic objects. In later testimony Mr. Orville Larkin, leader of the unnamed committee representing those in opposition to the CCSB stated that his group felt that to snatch Beta from orbit at this moment of its greatest glory would be contrary to natural law and that he and his supporters would never concede to any plan to save it."
Jordan raised his head and stared over the fax sheet at Clements. "Am I going out of my mind, or did this really happen?"
"It sure did ... and is," said Clements. "Later on, I am told, Wamboldt threw a chair at Larkin, and the committee recessed after declaring both men in contempt."