Basil Rhodes was hurrying toward the departure terminal of the old spaceport attached to the Interplanetary Alliance Space Station—the building near Pombos that was recently lauded around the Interplanetary Alliance as a triumph of modern architecture—when a rather rude man barged past him, sending his hot dog flying.
“Hey! That was my lunch!” Basil shouted, but the man merely stuck his pinky finger up at him before he barged into someone else. Basil snorted derisively. The hand gesture was supposed to be offensive but the fact that it was used by bratty girls more often than anyone else just made the man look like even more of an asshat.
Basil contemplated his injured hot dog on the grubby floor. The onions and mustard had scattered in opposite directions, making the bun look like it had just sneezed.
Somewhere on one of the Prime planets, an art collector would probably write out a large check for the poor hot dog, but Basil had bigger fish to fry. His ship had been pulled by customs for an emissions test and cargo inspection when he’d passed through last night, and he’d been dependent on the hospitality of this lousy spaceport ever since. If he didn’t report back to Gate Nineteen by seventeen hundred hours, he’d be fined for abandonment of a self-propelled vehicle and they’d probably impound it. Being on a tight schedule, he couldn’t allow that.
Bereft of his food, he joined the line for security check-in, beyond which all the departure gates awaited. Ahead, two aliens in atmo-suits seemed to be grumbling to one another. The Speakeasy implant behind Basil’s right ear automatically translated, but it didn’t filter out the original sounds of the alien languages.
“What’s taking so long?” one of them grumbled.
“Some humanoid up front, trying to get off the planet. It hasn’t gotten its authority,” the other said.
Intrigued, Basil looked down the long line and saw a young woman with flowing dark brown wavy hair, who appeared to only be wearing a flimsy white cotton nightgown or petticoat.
“Please, you don’t understand! I have to get away from him!” Her voice was plaintive as she wailed at the security guard. Basil left the line and walked closer. This appeared to be a classic damsel-in-distress situation and he did not have time for this delay.
“Ma’am, as I have already said, I cannot let you through. Pombos law clearly states that no woman may leave the planet without her husband. As you are clearly alone, I am not able to allow you through.” The spaceport security goon was speaking slowly at the flustered young woman, as if lack of understanding was the reason she wasn’t accepting his refusal to let her through. It seemed ironic to Basil that his emphasis on particular words was intended to convey the empathy he was so clearly lacking.
“But… I have a ticket!” she said, and Basil couldn’t see her face but he was certain from her new tone of voice that she’d started crying. “Please, I spent all my money on it. I have to get away! He’ll kill me!” The woman was openly sobbing now.
The security guard was as sympathetic as a chainsaw to a tree it had just felled.
This girl was in some sort of trouble. Basil’s chivalrous side took over, so he puffed out his chest and marched up to the sobbing woman, hoping she wouldn’t mess this up.
“There you are! I’ve been searching all over for you!” He put one arm around her shoulder and she stiffened, adding credibility to the idea that he might be the man she was trying to escape. He hoped so, anyway.
“Sir, is this… yours?” The security guard looked at the poor girl as if she was something he’d stepped in. Basil wanted to punch him, but thought better of it. The Pombossians would just imprison him and he didn’t want to get stuck in this backward dump. He was on a tight schedule.
“‘Fraid so. Told me she wanted to buy a hot dog, next thing I know she’s trying to board without me! C’mon, honey, the ship’s waiting!” Basil tried to urge her to play along. She just stared at him with the most amazingly soulful brown eyes Basil had ever seen.
He handed the man his chip and he scanned it.
“Basil Rhodes, twenty-seven in universal standard years, six foot four, blond hair, lilac eyes, weighing two hundred-fourteen pounds at last medical. Occupation: Freelance Cargo and Logistics Trader.” The guard read from his computer screen. Basil was pretty sure the guard only needed the hair, eyes, and height to identify him as an alien on this planet of mostly brown- and black-haired peoples, whose eyes tended to range from cat-yellow to dark brown. “It does not say that you’re married on your record.” The caveman guard was clearly trying for the Bureaucrat of The Day award. He’d have to get in line; Basil had already had to prove his date of birth to buy the damn hot dog, and he’d had to sign forms in quadruplicate when customs had seized his ship.
He replied slowly, “It also says for the purposes of citizenship that I’m resident on Howell Outpost, where there’s no legal way of registering a marriage because the place is being shut down. It’s been redundant since Kepler Outpost got opened. Believe me, we’re married,” he insisted, looking for all the world like he wished he wasn’t married to this beautiful siren. He hadn’t lived on Howell Outpost in years, but officially it was still his home address.
He placed a few coins down in front of the security goon. There were legitimate researchers who had proved mathematically that any male Pombossian worker would become less bureaucratic when they received a large bribe. There was even a formula to calculate the exact amount that would make a difference in any given situation. Basil presumed it didn’t apply to female Pombossians because they weren’t allowed to work.
The money disappeared and for a moment Basil wondered whether his passage would be refused anyway. The security goon seemed like the type.
“Howell? Oh, I see. Well, that seems to be in order.” He returned the chip and waved Basil and the young woman through. Basil pulled her past the metal detector and out of earshot of the security guard.
“Why didn’t he check your chip?” he asked the woman.
“We don’t have chips on Pombos—women, I mean. We always travel on our father’s or husband’s chip.”
Well, at least something about this weird situation made sense. He felt bad for her though, because she wasn’t going to get far without a chip. It was a passport, bank card, and résumé all rolled into one handy little circuit. On every planet in the Interplanetary Alliance, children were supposed to receive a chip when they turned sixteen, and expected to use it by the time they reached eighteen, the interplanetary age of majority. There was a huge demand for them on the black market and hackers could make a lot of money unlocking chips and rewriting history for criminals who were supposed to be kept on-world on any given planet. Basil suspected that the chips intended for Pombossian women were being resold at a vast profit. It was a very corrupt planet.
“What’s your name and where are you headed?”
“I’m Laila, and I’m going as far away from here as I can get! I don’t care where I wind up. Thank you for your help, I’m going to board my transport now.”
“They won’t let you,” he said. She’d been turning to leave when his words arrested her. He probably could have just left her there to be someone else’s problem, but the problem with someone else’s problems was that he tended to end up being the someone else who got left with the problem at the end of the day. It was a hazard of his profession. He didn’t want to get called back from a hasty departure to take care of his wayward ‘wife.’ On top of that, there was just something about her that made Basil want to take care of her. She seemed like she’d been through a lot.
“Let them try to stop me boarding. I got this far! I’d rather die trying to leave than stay another hour on this planet! My father’s not been buried a month, and Gar-Kon’s trying to force me to marry him! My mother agreed to it, so it was a legally binding arrangement.” Laila’s brown eyes were full of fire and her fingertips turned white as she gripped the precious ticket. “I only got onto the space station because Gar-Kon brought me here. He hasn’t let me out of his sight for four weeks to make sure I don’t get away. He’s obsessed! I thought this was the closest I’d ever get to the interplanetary ships so I spent all I had on this ticket; all my father left me.”
Basil frowned at the mention of Gar-Kon, although he’d never actually met him. Gar-Kon was a small-time gangster with designs on controlling all of Pombos’s black market. Basil knew firsthand that the gangster had left a trail of blood in his wake. Basil went out of his way to avoid doing business with men like Gar-Kon, who definitely wasn’t someone Basil wanted to tangle with. In the last three months, Basil had lost both his shipping contacts on Pombos because neither had paid Gar-Kon enough protection money. If those contacts were here, the ship wouldn’t have been pulled by customs and he’d be ahead of schedule for his next stop. He decided to try to get the girl off this space station.
“Listen, I’m headed to Tefan in the next system, got a schedule to keep. D’you want a lift?”
She stared at him, first narrowing her eyes with suspicion, then softening her gaze as her eyes darted around his body. He liked to think that she appreciated what she saw—shifting heavy cargo was good for the physique. Then, against all probability, she started to shake her head, as if she had any good reason to refuse.
“Thanks, but—” she began.
“Laila? Laila!” a man bellowed, striding past the queue of patient travelers. His lack of awareness of the concepts of queuing, taking turns, or even that other people needed to occupy space, marked him as the man who’d made Basil’s hot dog plummet to its demise. The way Laila was rooted to the spot, shaking and closing her eyes as if awaiting her fate, all her fire gone, told Basil that this was also Gar-Kon. He was sure the brute hadn’t actually seen her yet so they had some time. The security guard—the weasel—simpered to Gar-Kon and stood aside.
Basil made a split-second decision.
“C’mon, princess.” He grabbed her hand and ran to Gate Nineteen. Their only chance to avoid Gar-Kon was a hasty departure, and while Basil was still annoyed about his hot dog, he didn’t think he’d win in a brawl; the man was built like a sumo wrestler. All he’d have to do was fall on Basil and it would be over. Maybe if Flin were here, he could overpower this small-time gangster. Basil had never seen Flin lose a fight; most of his opponents ran away rather than fight him.
At the entrance, a man with a clipboard examined the paperwork and let Basil and Laila through. Inside, Basil’s ship The Great Gig was standing in a departure bay and the doors were open.
“Mr. Basil Rhodes?” The officious man who had taken his ship from him this morning appeared to be struggling to remember Basil’s face.
“The one and only,” he replied. “Got my clearance?”
“It’s only sixteen fifty-eight. I instructed you this morning to return at seventeen hundred hours.” The little man had painted liberally over his bald patch with what smelled like cheap shoe polish, in an attempt to either minimize it from a distance or lubricate it for sticking up his own ass. For that reason, Basil decided the man’s opinion was invalid.
“I’m two minutes early. In most places, that’s classed as being on time, also known as not late, which means my ship doesn’t get towed. I want clearance to depart.”
“No can do. It’s only sixteen fifty-eight.”
Basil handed him the last of his Pombossian currency, glad to be rid of it, in the hope that the man would improve with the right grease in his palm.
“Fine. You may enter your ship and prepare it for takeoff. Not my fault if it catches fire.” He shrugged and walked away.
“Does that happen often?” Laila wondered. Basil shook his head.
He went inside The Great Gig and noted with relief that everything seemed to be where he’d left it. He didn’t have time for a full inspection so he just opened a couple of cargo lids and glanced over the goods. Laila followed him until he reached the cockpit.
“Sit there, please,” he said, and she complied. “The belt for the copilot’s seat sticks real easy, so I’ll fasten you in.”
She sat perfectly still as he fastened the harness safety belt around her, and Basil felt a strong urge to protect her. “The belts are pretty useless in a crash—the speeds spaceships travel, there’s generally very little of anything left—but the harness’ll keep you attached to the seat if you need to eject, which is safe in any blue-atmosphered planet. Beyond that, if you wear a spacesuit, it can double up as a non-propelled escape pod,” he explained.
She seemed to still be terrorized with the prospect of Gar-Kon arriving. It would be better to tell her about his pride and joy when she felt more calm, Basil decided.
Safe in his own seat, he flicked on the electronics. An automated message was playing through the communications system:
“…Do not leave the bay until the doors are fully open. When you leave the bay, turn immediately left and join the predominant flow of traffic. Please observe all Pombossian rules until you hear the message informing you that you have left Pombossian space. Thank you for visiting Pombos for your oil, phosphorus, and helium needs! Please return soon…” Some jingling music played then the broadcast began again. “This is an automated message from Andromeda International Space Station’s Space Port, built and maintained by the government of Pombos. Please listen carefully to this important information about departing from the Space Port. The ship parking bay doors will open at seventeen hundred hours. Do not leave the bay until the doors are fully open…”
He turned the radio off. He hated repetitive broadcasts; they got inside his brain and caused him to wake up at three in the morning, weeks later, hearing strains of them like a song he couldn’t get rid of. In the glass-windowed control room, Basil saw Mr. Shoe Polish was joined by Gar-Kon, the latter looking angry, waving and moving his mouth quickly. It looked like trouble. A flashing light on the console showed that the Evanescent Mode Drive was now ready to move the ship. The Great Gig taxied through the first of the three air lock doors, into the tight space behind, waiting for the next one to open. Basil could no longer see the two men as the first door closed behind him with a bang. A light flashed on the comms system; someone was trying to contact the ship. He flicked it on.
“Always keep ‘em talking, that way they have less time to think,” he remarked to Laila, then pressed the talk button. “This is Basil Rhodes, captain of The Great Gig, what can I do for you?” His voice was buttered with politeness.
“Mr. Basil. There is the small matter that you are stealing my wife,” Gar-Kon said. Basil looked at Laila, who had screwed her eyes up tight at the sound of his voice and was gripping the seat so hard that her knuckles had turned white. Basil decided he would rather smash the remaining air lock doors by departing too early than send her back. There was no power in the universe that would make him hand this delicate, broken creature back to such an obnoxious man.
“Your wife, mister? Gosh, I wouldn’t know anything about that. Girl with me’s my wife, ain’t that so, honey?” He turned to Laila. She was in no fit state to play along. Basil wasn’t sure she was even aware of anything other than the sound of Gar-Kon’s voice. That was when Basil noticed the bruises all over her forearms and an angry red scar on her neck. Whatever it was from, it had happened recently, and he suspected that Gar-Kon was the culprit.
“Aww, she’s still shy. How long’d it take for your wife to start opening up a bit, Mr.… er… sorry, I don’t know your name,” he babbled, trying to keep Gar-Kon on the comms link instead of deciding to try to get inside the ship. Luckily, the second door started to open.
“Kon. Gar-Kon. I’m going to hunt you down, Mr. Basil Rhodes, and I’m going to feed you your own intestines when I find you,” he threatened through the comms link. Basil shook his head in disbelief. Did people still make threats like that when there were perfectly good tasers, lasers, and stun pulses to go around?
The second door stopped opening, and Basil wondered if Mr. Shoe Polish had used the manual override. Basil switched cameras on the view screen above the front window, so he could see what was going on behind him. The first airlock door was opening again, while the second one had frozen ajar, with a gap of about four feet. From here, Basil could see Gar-Kon climb out of the control room’s emergency hatch, then he jumped onto the ship bay’s floor. Basil leaned over to the console in front of Laila and pressed three buttons together. Then he flicked the comms system in a particular order. In the view screen, the first door began to close again. Gar-Kon was still running across it when the first door banged closed behind the ship, then the second one began to open again. Basil taxied forward, waiting for the third air lock. The sound of blaster shots against the first door carried into the ship, and Basil suspected that Gar-Kon would get that door open again soon, or else Mr. Shoe Polish would. People seemed to do whatever Gar-Kon told them to, and Basil wondered if it was down to fear or leverage. The final door opened, and he rolled out, turning immediately left. He waited the mandatory five seconds before he fired up the Evanescent Mode Drive, and floored it away from Pombos.
“Annnnd we’re outta there!” he declared, expecting Laila to cheer up. She just stared at the stars morosely.
“It’s not far enough.” She began to cry again. “Nowhere is far enough away from him. He’ll find me anywhere in the universe!”
“It’s fine, he’s probably halfway to the nearest drinking establishment by now. I’m sure he’ll find someone more available within the next few hours, then you’re off the hook.”
“You just told him he can’t have me! He’ll never stop looking now. Gar-Kon always gets what he wants; telling him no seems to make him want it more.”
“You’re blaming me for rescuing you? Would you rather I’d left you at security check-in?” He was flabbergasted that she was pinning this on him.
“I don’t know! I just had to get away! If I’d married him… I could feel my soul screaming that it was wrong, that I had to escape, that he was crushing my spirit.”
Basil sighed. The way she’d lashed out had been unreasonable, but he could see she was clearly not in a good state. The questions were, what could he do with her once he’d picked up Flin, and how could he get her to snap out of dwelling on the immediate past?
“Where’s the rest of your family?” he asked. “Surely your mother or grandparents won’t let him treat you like this?”
“It was my mother’s idea,” she said ruefully, and fresh tears fell. “She wanted the financial security that a marriage to Gar-Kon would attract. He paid her a good price. I’ve got three younger brothers who she sold to go down the phosphorus mines.”
“Isn’t that illegal?” He looked at her in horror. He knew Pombos was behind the times, but surely no one actually sold their children like that?
“According to whom? Everyone on Pombos knows the Interplanetary Alliance doesn’t care about what happens on our planet, so long as their precious station is safe and Pombossian mineral exports remain cheap. It’s not a Prime planet, after all.”
It was an uncomfortable fact, not unnoticed by those such as Basil who traveled around the galaxy a lot, that the Interplanetary Alliance only protected the Prime planets—the richest planets, which happened to all be situated in the same star system. The other planets, the outposts, and the frontiers of civilization, had to fend for themselves, but taxes, of course, were still due, and the IA’s tax enforcers were the only officials who would venture out there. All planets had to pay tax, regardless of the levels of poverty there, or even if they had a currency. It was a larger-scale protection racket than Gar-Kon’s, but it was a scam nonetheless. The Prime planets just kept getting richer and that made them more influential. Anyone who tried to leave the Interplanetary Alliance would find twelve disgustingly rich planets and about a hundred poorer ones had been browbeaten by the Interplanetary Alliance into declaring war on them. Given the lack of help available, Basil decided the best thing he could do to help Laila was to get her away from Pombos. At least most of the other planets saw women as equals to men.
“I’m putting her on autopilot for a little while. We got about nine hours to Tefan, let me show you around.” He unfastened his safety belt. She looked at him helplessly, causing his heart to melt.
“You just press this red button and it opens; watch.” He pressed the release on her harness and it sprang open, just like his had done, retracting into its anchor points. She looked surprised.
“Where did it go?”
“You’re kidding?” The look on her face told him she was, against all probability, serious.
“It’s on a roll that springs back when it’s not being held,” he tried to explain. She nodded, but he wasn’t sure if she understood. He remembered that Pombos had barely achieved steam power before being informed that there was life on other planets, that it was more intelligent and advanced than Pombos, and that Pombos now owed the Interplanetary Alliance a huge tax bill for protection against alien invasions. The Pombossian economy had been crippled and further technological advancement had stalled immediately after the steam locomotive had been refined. The IA owned all of the transports between the space station and the planet surface, and they had guarded their technology well, although some very wealthy Pombossians had paid to import ships for their own use. Basil wondered what else he would need to explain to Laila.
“You’ve seen the main door,” he said. “Back here’s my room; that one’s Flin’s room. Bathroom’s through there, with your typical features.”
“Typical… features. Uh… of course.” She stared at the brushed steel sink and toilet unit, then jumped and screamed when her hand touched the flush sensor on the toilet, causing a rush of water.
“It’s okay, it’s just the toilet flusher.” He put a reassuring hand on her arm but she stiffened again.
He’d always been rather proud of his ship. He’d even paid the money to re-register it with a better name than ‘Garagok Mining Vessel 283,’ and he thought it was pretty exciting to have someone to show it to. Flin thought it was just a rusty old tin can. That was pretty much the only thing, aside from sex, that Flin and Karissa, Basil’s ex-little, had agreed on, but this girl had never been off her planet until this misadventure, and her eyes seemed to light up in amazement as she discovered what everything did. The bathroom’s walk-in shower seemed to delight her, and she spent several minutes waving her hand over the light sensor to make the water turn on and off. Basil just watched in adoration. She was the cutest little creature he’d ever had aboard the ship, that was for sure.
The bed was another surprise.
“This bed… it’s all yours?” She didn’t seem able to believe that one man might have a king-sized bed to himself.
“Yep. It’s a classy ship,” he said proudly. She sat on the edge of the bed.
“Oh! It’s soft!” She bounced on it with her bottom, setting her breasts in motion. He stood in the doorway, amused. Laila lifted her petticoats to her knees and climbed onto the bed, then jumped on it with her feet.
The little giggle she made was adorable, but Basil was worried that she could fall and hurt herself. He walked over to her and she tripped. She was about to fall onto the hard metal floor, so he put his hands around her waist.
“Get off me! Don’t touch me!” She panicked and tried to struggle free.
“It ain’t made for jumping on.” He lifted her up, intending to put her on the floor, but she kicked and screamed.
“Laila! Hey! Hey! Quit it!” He deposited her on the floor.
“Don’t touch me!” she reiterated, backing away from him.
“You were falling. I stopped you from hurting yourself.” He wondered what had gotten into her; she was acting like a cornered animal.
“I… I’m sorry. I thought you were going to…” She couldn’t finish the sentence.
“Look, I ain’t gonna harm you. If you’re gonna stay on my ship, you need to behave. And I want you to stay on my ship,” he said. “For starters, don’t do anything else dangerous, then get mad at me for helping you out. You were about to hurt yourself just now. Think about how you’re responding to things.”
Laila stared at him then shook her head.
“You only have to put up with me until we reach Tefan.” She looked away from him, but Basil was willing to bet she was crying again. He wasn’t going to give in.
“Don’t challenge me on my own ship, missy,” he stated. He wasn’t angry, he just wanted to be clear that he wasn’t going to be wrapped around the finger of some lost little waif without a daddy. Who was he trying to prove that to, he wondered; her or himself? He walked out of his bedroom, shaking his head to try to clear it. She was right behind him.
“This is the kitchen. On a spaceship, we call that a galley, which confuses some people.” He waved around the galley, trying to think of all the reasons it was a bad idea to be attracted to a young lady he’d just met. She could have a venereal disease, he tried to tell himself, but everyone knew that those had been wiped out when smart viruses had been developed in the late twenty-first century. A smart virus targeted another, unwanted virus, removed its genetic material, and replaced it with some useful characteristics. Suddenly everyone with AIDS had been cured and turned into unfortunate individuals with an incurable case of mathematical genius. Humanity had advanced rather quickly after that. Every planet humans made contact with had eliminated disease because the smart viruses were unintentionally highly contagious.
Okay, he thought, maybe she couldn’t have a venereal disease, but she could be a gold-digger. Not that she looked like the type, and anyway, she wouldn’t be digging for very long to find the meager savings he’d stashed in a sock under his bed. He kept meaning to invest his cash in a bank on a Prime planet with a strong economy, but somehow, work always led him to the most unstable and undeveloped backwater planets in Andromeda, and these days the Milky Way was mostly full of outposts that orbited gas giants. Before terraforming had been banned, some bastard had invented un-terraforming technology, and gone on a rampage in the Milky Way, leaving dozens of ruined planets in his wake, including Basil’s parents’ home planet, Earth. It had once been blue, but now it looked exactly like Venus, the uninhabitable planet next door. When the Alliance had been formed, all work on terraforming technology had been destroyed, and astro-archaeologists were now given huge funds to piece together the remnants of the lost civilizations.
He realized his brain had very neatly tried to distract him from thinking up reasons not to be with this girl. It all boiled down to one universal truth. She was trouble. How did he know? Because he was attracted to her, and he invariably fell for the cutest, most troublesome girls on any given planet.
Basil was fighting a losing battle against himself and he knew it. He briefly thought about the times when he and Flin had shared his last little, and how Flin had often been able to see things about the situation that Basil had been blinded to. His only hope was that Flin would talk some sense into him when Basil reached Tefan and rescued him from the gangsters that were holding him hostage.