Authors: Chris Bunch
The Scoundrel Worlds by Chris Bunch
The fat man crept out of the hotel's service entrance, peered around cautiously. The night was silent except for a few passing lifters and the buzz of wet circuitry, above, on the primitive electric grid.
All he had to do, he thought, was go down three blocks to the luxe hotel where the lifter cab rank should still be manned, grab the first one, and make for the spaceport. Then he'd be safe.
He swore at himself for thinking he could outthink Them by staying in this working-class hotel instead of at the properly luxurious one his per diem entitled him to. Hotels like this one were where They stayed, saving their credits for alk and bail funds.
The fat man, wishing he'd had some kind of military training, crept along the high wall, moving as quietly as he knew how. It was late, very late, and hopefully They had drunk themselves into oblivion and wouldn't still be looking for him.
He'd fooled them for a while with twin connecting rooms, one under his own name, the other under a false one. They'd broken in to the first room, smashed it to bits, and hammered on the connecting door, but since there was no answer, had given up.
For the moment.
The fat man came to the first street crossing, crouched, and went across, waddling faster than he'd moved in years, except when he was on the field.
The silence held. He went down another block, reached a boulevard, and started across.
He was halfway to the other side when the baying came. A block away, half a dozen stumbling men saw and recognized him.
"Kill th' fook."
"Deader'n th' Devils," the cries came.
The man ran faster. Safety was close, very close.
He didn't make it.
Two dozen of Them came out of an alley ahead of him.
The fat man skidded to a stop, darted across the street, hoping for safety, an open door, stairs, anything.
There was nothing but high stone walls.
They caught him within a hundred meters.
Bottles arced toward him, struck. He stumbled on, and then a heavy rock took him between the shoulder blades. He fell, clawed his way up. But it was too late. They were on him with boots, iron bars, fists.
It was almost a relief to let the pain take him down and down into nothingness.
TWO � ^ � Trimalchio IV was a very lucky planet. It had no history to speak of, save hedonism. Its diplomats had cleverly played one enemy against another, so Trimalchio was able to stay neutral, uninvaded, and a good place to put money when you didn't want any questions asked. Its semitropic climate and blue seas spotted with islands attracted people who thought themselves beautiful� or rich enough to convince others they were.
Jasmine King appeared to fit in perfectly.
She was an utterly gorgeous woman, so beautiful and competent that her former employers, the security firm of Cerberus Systems, had decided she was a robot, and hence no longer deserving of a salary.
That outrage�although she never told anyone whether or not she was an android, and if that impossibility was true, what unknown super-civilization had brought her to life�had led her into the employ of Star Risk, ltd.
She was the office manager, and the head and only member of Star Risk's research department. She was also head and only member of the personnel department, and a junior field operative. While she was quite qualified in administration, her experience out where things got bloody was less exhaustive than that of the four other principals. Her most recent accomplishments included a belt in Applied General Martial Arts and a Master Shot in both pistol and blast-rifle classes.
Star Risk occupied a suite in the forty-third floor of a fifty-story high-rise, a building that used a lot of antigravity generators to give the illusion it hung from the sky without, like many of Trimalchio's citizens, any visible means of support.
Their office was decorated in the incongruous, if currently popular, style of ultramodern leather and steel, along with archaic furniture, and prints on the wall.
The other occupant of the huge reception area was a rather mousy man.
Jasmine keyed her whisper mike.
"A possible client," she said. "Not rich-looking. Named Weitman. Said he'd discuss his business with an operative. Suspect he's a little confused, has a cheating wife or partner, and thinks Star Risk is some sort of investigative service."
Jasmine listened. "No," she said. "There's nobody else out here but me, and no jobs on tap, either."
She smiled as Weitman looked up. "Someone will be right with you." The little man nodded jerkily.
The door to the inner offices opened, and a nightmare lumbered in, all silky fur, and almost three meters tall.
"Good morning, Mr. Weitman," the creature rumbled. "I am Amanandrala Grokkonomonslf, which no one beyond my race can pronounce, so you should call me Grok. Come into my office, and we can discuss your problem."
The little man got up and followed Grok. He stopped, turned back to Jasmine. "For your information, Miss� King, I'm not confused about what Star Risk does, nor am I looking for separation evidence." He smiled, a not altogether pleasant smile. "My father taught me to read lips at a very young age."
Weitman followed Grok, closing the door behind him.
Jasmine King proved she blushed as perfectly as she did most other things.
"Have you ever heard of the game of skyball?" Weitman asked Grok earnestly.
The alien suspected Weitman did everything earnestly.
"A game?" Grok said. "No, I haven't much interest or knowledge of sports, beyond a little Earth feetball history. My race doesn't practice physical displays of competition, but rather finds pleasure in debate on a higher level. When we aren't killing each other," he added.
Grok wasn't lying. He'd left his native worlds out of boredom and joined the Alliance's military service as a signal specialist, a cryptanalyst, and someone who really didn't mind if things got bloody out.
Weitman hadn't been listening to Grok after the "No."
"Skyball is one of the greatest of all sports, maybe the greatest," he said. "It requires the utmost of physical development and coordination, plus a high degree of intellectual achievement. There is also a large element of chance, which makes all things more interesting."
"I assume," Grok said, "given the name, that it's played with aircraft, such as the ancient game of polo-ponies I've read about."
"There are no mechanical devices in skyball," Weitman said. "Except, of course, for the ball, the anti-gravity generators, and the random computer."
"Ah," Grok said. "Sheer muscle and skill."
Weitman didn't notice the sarcasm as he went on. "Skyball's an invention of the early spacefarers," he said. "It was originally played in space, under zero-G conditions. But it grew in popularity, and as few fans find zero gravity exactly easy on their digestive tracts�particularly if they're drinking�its rules were changed, and it is now played in stadiums, on planets.
"The field has antigravity generators above it, so normal gravity is negated. There are ten women or men to a side, and their task is to carry the ball any way they choose, to the opponent's goal.
"The other team, naturally, tries to stop them and secure the ball itself, in any way they choose that doesn't constitute a major felony. Play is in four quarters of fifteen minutes each.
"To complicate matters, the ball has an internal, varying gyroscope, so in mid-throw, it might suddenly change its direction of travel. In addition, there are antigravity generators hidden below the playing field, which turn on and off in a random manner to affect the ball and the players.
"Skyball has become enormously popular within the Alliance, particularly on certain worlds who have vaunted rivalries."
"This is quite fascinating," Grok said. "But we here at Star Risk deal in bullets, as the old saying goes. I assume you have professional athletes playing the sport, and would hardly like to recruit mercenaries and men of violence such as us."
"The sport is one thing," Weitman said. "It is violent enough. But there is violence off the field as well. Certain planets have become absolute fanatics about skyball, so extremely so that actual wars have been fought over interplanetary championships."
Grok made no comment.
"This is bad enough," Weitman said. "But there are also thuggish followers who have attacked players and coaches. More recently, some of them have assaulted members of my guild, which is the Professional Referees Association. A week ago one of our members was beaten to death after a match. This is intolerable.
"The current league finals are between the planets of Cheslea and Warick, whose fans are among the worst of the offenders. We advised them that if they cannot guarantee security to our members, we will refuse to judge these finals. Both worlds seemed unconcerned, and said they would provide officials of their own."
Weitman shivered. "For reasons I won't go into, that is a terrible idea.
"PRA has authorized me to investigate various firms who provide security services, and Star Risk is the one I have chosen. We want to hire you to keep the seven referees who'll officiate at these final matches on Warick from any harm, and are prepared to pay one million credits, plus all expenses, to ensure no harm comes to them."
Grok stroked the fur on his chest, considering. "Interesting," he said. "Very interesting. I think Star Risk will be more than delighted to accept your offer."
"You did what?" M'chel Riss moaned. Riss was tall, blond, green eyed, and looked more like a model than the Alliance Marine major she'd been before she quit the service, after standing off a lecherous commanding officer. She'd ended up as one of the mercenary founders of Star Risk, ltd.
"It seems like a nice, simple assignment," Grok said in an injured tone, "with a more than acceptable pay rate for a few days' work. It's not like I volunteered us for a war or anything."
"A nice, simple way to get dead, you mean," Chas Goodnight said.
Goodnight, a few centimeters taller than Riss, was sandy haired, with a friendly twinkle in his eye. M'chel considered him the most amoral person she'd ever met. He was also ex-Alliance, a "bester"�one of the handful of bio-modified commandos who did the loose confederation's dirty work. He'd been one of the most respected besters, until he decided cat burglary paid better than assassination and skulking through the bushes.
Star Risk had broken him out of a death cell. Now he wasn't quite a full partner, but was more than an employee.
Goodnight's activities included having eyes capable of seeing in the dark, reaction speeds three times that of an athlete, a brain circuited for battle analysis, and ears able to pick up frequencies up to the FM range. In bester mode, he was "powered" by a tiny battery at the base of his spine. When it ran dry, after about fifteen minutes or so, he was drained until he input a few thousand calories and hopefully slept around the clock.
Friedrich von Baldur, the firm's head, nodded slowly, but didn't say anything. Von Baldur was another rogue, who claimed to have been a colonel in the Alliance, but actually had been a warrant officer who hastily left the service ahead of various court-martial charges involving government supplies gone missing. Nor was his real name von Baldur.
"You three obviously know something more than I do," Grok said.
"Skyball's a game," Riss started, "and�"
"I know that," Grok interrupted. "Weitman gave me a basic briefing, and I looked it up in Encyclopedia Galactica. Seems a rough enough, rather predictable sport. Not that we'll have anything to do with the game, merely protecting the officials."
"Merely," Goodnight snorted. "Merely!? Grok, comfort of my youth, bower of my old age, let me tell you a story.
"A few years back, when I was still somewhat honest and working for the Alliance shilling, me and a few of my teammates were chasing a guy named Purvis around the Galactic lens. The Alliance wanted him alive, because he'd� never mind what he'd done. They wanted him bad, so they could work him over and find out what they wanted to find out. We were told we'd get our paws slapped if we came back without him�or maybe worse, if he came back in a body bag.
"Purvis heard he was hot, and so he cut and run. We got word that he'd set up shop as a games advisor on Cheslea, which has one of the teams in this skyball championship. Their team, by the way, is the Black Devils� Games advisor, right. So we hare off after his young ass.
"We get to Cheslea, and there's no sign of him. The planet's a madhouse, which it is anyway, since the people seem to think logic starts in the key of C sharp, and run their society accordingly. But when we arrive, Cheslea's an extra-special madhouse because the Black Devils are facing their worst enemy, the Uniteds, which are from the planet of Warick.