Authors: Mike Resnick
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Space Opera
"I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses," said Moby Dick. "I'm staying right here."
"All right. Who's your friend?"
"Did you ever hear of Accidental Barnes?"
"It sounds like a joke."
"There's nothing funny about him."
"It's the name that's amusing."
"He killed his first man by accident," said Moby Dick. "He killed his next 30 on purpose. If things get nasty, you'll be glad you've got him with you. He's certainly more use than that goddamned Indian." He grimaced. "You know, none of my servo-mechs have worked since yesterday."
Dante chuckled. "I seem to remember you suggesting that he pay them a visit."
"Only because I never thought he'd do it!" snapped Moby Dick. Suddenly all the alien gamblers stopped what they were doing and stared at him. "Go back to your games," he said in a more reasonable tone of voice. "Nothing's wrong." He turned back to Dante. "I don't know why you let him hang around. He's useless."
"That useless man may possess some tastes that you and I disagree with," answered Dante, "but he's as deadly a killer as Dimitrios was. And he's totally loyal to me. If there's a better reason to let him hang around, I can't think of it."
"Point taken," acknowledged Moby Dick.
"Now, where is this Accidental Barnes?"
"He's staying at your hotel. He arrived while we were off visiting the Tweedle."
"What's he doing here?"
"Gambling," said the albino. "He doesn't need the money, but he enjoys the challenge."
Dante looked around. "So why isn't he here?"
"This casino is for aliens."
"Nobody's ever stopped me from entering."
"He can enter it any time he wants, but we don't have any human games, and he prefers them." Moby Dick signaled to a Mollutei, which ambulated over and stood in front of him. The albino spoke in an alien tongue for a moment, and then the alien left the casino. "I've just sent for him. He should be here in a few minutes."
They waited in silence, and five minutes later a short, stocky man with spiky blond hair and a bushy beard, blond but streaked with white, entered the casino. He looked around, spotted Moby Dick, and walked over.
"Dante, this is Accidental Barnes, the man I was telling you about."
Dante extended a hand, which Barnes accepted.
"Got a job for you," continued Moby Dick. "How would you like to ride shotgun on a rescue mission against Tweedledee and Tweedledum?"
"Tweedledee and Tweedledum?" repeated Barnes. "Nice to know you're not thinking small. What's it pay?"
"Nothing if we fail, bragging rights if we win," said Dante.
"You're asking me to go up against the most dangerous pair of aliens on the Frontier," said Barnes. "And I didn't hear any mention of money."
"You're not going to. They've kidnapped a woman. I plan to rescue her. We'll be in and out in five minutes, or we're dead. Moby Dick volunteered you. I don't
your help, but I'd like it."
"And you're not paying anything at all?" said Barnes.
"The woman is September Morn," said Moby Dick.
Barnes's entire demeanor changed. "Why didn't you say so in the first place? I'm in."
"You know her?"
"She's as close to royalty as this sector has produced," answered Barnes. "If the Inner Frontier ever gets civilized, it's going to be because of people like her, not you and me."
"The question is whether we
it to be civilized," interjected Moby Dick. "Most of us came out here to get away from civilization."
"We came here to get away from the Democracy, which isn't the same thing," replied Dante.
"I agree," said Barnes. "And whether the whale here likes it or not, sooner or later we
going to get civilized." He turned to Dante. "Where are Tweedledee and Tweedledum keeping here, and when do we strike?"
"I'll tell you the planet as soon as I know where it is," said Dante. "We'll leave in four or five days."
"Count me in." Barnes got to his feet. "Nice meeting you. You can find me at the Windsor Arms."
Barnes left the casino.
"Why didn't you tell him she's on Kabal III?" asked Moby Dick.
"You heard him. He thinks she's royalty. He wanted money until he found out we're after September Morn, and now he's willing to risk his life for free. If I tell him where she was, I don't think he'll wait until I'm ready."
"So what if he goes early?"
"He'll get us all killed," answered Dante firmly.
"Are you sure this is going to work?" asked Moby Dick.
"No," said the poet. "If everyone does what I tell them to do, I'm sure it
to work, but that's not the same thing."
Dante went back to his room, contacted a few more people he knew and trusted in the Democracy, and gave them the same instructions he'd given to Wilbur.
He then spent four days trying not to think about what was coming. He arose each day, ate breakfast, and took long drives through the countryside, avoiding Virgil, Moby Dick, and Accidental Barnes whenever he could, and just trying to relax and ease the tension that was gnawing at his stomach.
Finally, on the morning of the fifth day, he contacted Wilbur again.
"How's are we doing?" he asked.
"So far so good," answered the accountant. "I had to spread a little money around, just to be on the safe side. As things stand now, they'll blow the whole fucking planet exactly 1435 Standard time. You got any more instructions?"
"One very important one," said Dante. "I'm flying a 4-man Silver Meteor, registration GF5314GL. I want you to alert the Navy that I'm the guy who located the Tweedle, and that I'll be taking off like a bat out of hell just a minute or two before they're due to strike. I don't want them jumping the gun while I'm on the planet, and I don't want them mistaking me for the Tweedle and blowing me out of the sky while I'm racing away from Kabal. Can you do that?"
"I want you to be very sure, Wilbur. If you screw this up, you'll kill me."
"Trust me," said the accountant. "I haven't let you down yet, have I?"
"So far all you've done is make money. This is a little more important to me."
"I'll take care of it, Rhymer."
"If you don't, I'll haunt you from the grave."
"If I don't, there won't be enough left of you and your ship to put in a grave."
"All the more reason to do it right," said Dante. "Oh, one more thing. There's another ship that will be leaving when mine does. It belongs to a preacher named Deuteronomy Priest, and they're not to fire on it, either. I'll get back to you with the registration number later today. Over and out."
He walked over to the Fat Chance and roused Moby Dick from his form-fitting support chair.
"Get the preacher over to the spaceport," he said. "His ship is programmed to land on Kabal, one thousand miles due south of the fortress at exactly 1408 Standard time. It won't activate the communicators until then." He paused. "I know your engineer gave me a remote control for his ship. Is there anything I need to know about it?"
"Just press the yellow button," said the albino. "Easy as that."
"Okay, get him onto his ship."
Moby Dick went to the hotel to pick up Deuteronomy Priest, and Dante allowed himself the luxury of one last breakfast at a real restaurant before he was reduced to eating the food from his ship's galley.
Then he contacted Virgil and Barnes and told them to meet him at his ship. When they arrived Dante stared at Barnes' weapon.
"What the hell is
?" he demanded.
"I thought they were obsolete four or five millennia ago," said Dante.
"That was before we were able to create bolts with nuclear devices in their tips," said Barnes, lovingly patting his quiver.
"Okay, bring it aboard."
They took off a few minutes later, and came to a stop when they were half a light-year from Kabal.
"Let me check one last time and make sure everything's on schedule," Dante announced. He contacted the Grand Finale and his other agents, received positive reports from them, and finally shut down the radio. He ordered the ship to resume flight, and instructed the navigational computer to land as close as possible to the fortress at precisely 1416 Standard time—ten minutes after the preacher landed, and ten minutes before the Navy arrived. He considered arming himself, but decided any weapon he could carry would be useless against the Tweedle.
The three of them spent the next hour with their eyes glued to the chronometer. Finally the ship began descending to the planet's surface. Dante had the sensors try to pick up any form of life other than Deuteronomy Priest, who had landed six minutes earlier, but nothing showed up.
"You'd better be right about where they are and how fast they can travel," said Virgil, also staring at the sensor panel.
"If I'm not, we'll know it soon enough," answered Dante, passing out communicators. "Make sure to keep in constant touch with each other. We haven't got much time."
The ship touched down 50 yards from the fortress, precisely on schedule.
"Well, at least he's not perfect," commented Dante.
"What do you mean."
"We're right next to the fortress," he said. "Last time we were here he leveled the ground just to impress us, and he's forgotten to let it revert to its natural jagged surface."
He stepped through the hatch, waited impatiently for his companions to join him, and let the stair lower them to the ground.
"I'll take the west side. Virgil, you take the east. Barnes, you're riding shotgun, just in case there's something waiting for us. If there's nothing there, walk straight through and check the north end."
They entered the fortress, half-expecting to bump head-first into the Tweedle. It seemed deserted.
"September Morn!" he yelled as he turned to his left and entered a darkened corridor. "If you can hear me, speak up!"
"It's Dante Alighieri!"
"I'm in a corridor on the east side," said Virgil. "There aren't any doors."
"No opposition," said Barnes, checking in. "I'm heading to the south wall."
Dante continued walking, afraid to spend too much time examining his surroundings and simultaneously afraid that if he went too fast he could go right past September Morn.
"Virgil here. Still nothing."
"Ditto," said Barnes.
"Damn it!" said Dante. "We've only got seven or eight minutes left."
"I'm going as fast as I can," said Virgil. "It's not exactly a maze, but I still can't find any doors."
"Me neither," said Barnes. Then, suddenly: "Wait a minute! I think I've got something!"
"Where are you?" demanded Dante.
"About eighty feet from the west wall, and ten feet from the north wall. In the open—there doesn't seem to be a roof here."
It took Dante almost a minute to find it. Virgil arrived a few seconds later. Barnes was trying to move a circular slab of rock from where it sat on the ground.
"It's too perfect a circle," grunted Barnes. "Nature never made anything like that on a world like this."
Dante knelt down next to him. The two men strained to no avail, and then Virgil lent his strength, and finally the rock moved a bit, revealing a darkened chamber beneath it.
"Thank God!" said September Morn's voice.
"Hang on!" said Dante. "We'll have you out in a couple of minutes."
"Better make that less than a minute," said Virgil, his face flushed with the effort he was putting forth on the slab. "I've been counting."
The three men finally moved the slab about two feet. Then Virgil, the tallest of the three, lay on his belly and extended his arm down.
"Can you reach my hand?" he asked.
"I can't see," she said. "My eyes haven't adjusted to the light. Let me feel around."