1. vwyler

    vwyler Member

    Jan 16, 2010
    Likes Received:

    Negative Balance

    Discussion in '2013 Science Fiction Writing Contest' started by vwyler, Dec 3, 2013.


    Lt. Kodia Areb of the Galactic Transport Security Corps. guided her small, Prima-class space cruiser around the third moon of the planet Mammon-Delta with the relaxed ease of a pilot long accustomed to such maneuvers. Kodia was a Bruinian, a race of diminutive bear-like humanoids who lived on an isolated planet in the Tskytor sector. Nicknamed Kody by her fellow GTSC officers, she was fast becoming one of the most respected and well-liked young officers in the corps.
    Her latest assignment was to investigate the theft of a massive shipment of Tridium ore by Novus sector fringe pirates. Kodia was not normally reserved about accepting assignments, but when her Sector Chief handed her this particular job, she was a bit wary. It meant a long journey to the Getas sector and a drawn-out investigation that might take weeks, especially since she would be working alone, a fact Sector Chief Sujad had made quite clear to Kody during their conference. When she'd asked why that was, Sujad had been evasive. All her superior would tell her was that she had been especially requested for the job by a very influential individual. Kodia was curious enough to accept the assignment.
    As usual, she was given sealed orders before leaving GTSC HQ in the Zyad sector, to be read in-flight. The orders said little – merely that she was to report to the Chief Administrator of the banking facility on Mammon-Delta for further information. It was all very mysterious, to say nothing of frustrating, as she'd had to give up a two week vacation to accept the job. Kody was dead tired from her last assignment and she had been looking forward to returning to her home world to spend time with her husband, Dando, and her two cubs, Taslo and Romia. She hadn't seen them, except over a viewer screen, in three months. Difficult as this was for Kodia, it was too late now to protest. Once she passed the moon and was in free space between it and the planet, Kody flipped a switch on her helm console to open the rotor ports on her cruiser's under belly, then throttled back on the graviton pulse emitter that drove the ship. She could hear the whoomp-whoomp of the wave booms as they shimmied over the hull and slowed the ship. She typed in the approach coordinates contained in her sealed orders, then leaned back in the pilot's seat with a yawn. The auto-pilot would take over from here.
    Kodia glanced at her destination in the view port. Mammon-Delta was a small planet controlled by the Universal Banking and Trade Consortium (or the UBTC), a federation of fiscal giants that, for the most part, had a monopoly on all commercial activity in five sectors of galactic space. Kody disliked the UBTC, as did most of the galaxy. With their bloated fees and predatory loan practices, the UBTC gouged everybody. They owned politicians and judiciaries on every planet in five sectors, and, as word had it, were planning to expand to yet another sector where, no doubt, they would continue their nefarious, yet infuriatingly legal practices. It seemed hypocritical to Kody that the UBTC had the gall to demand an end to space piracy when they were the biggest pirates of all.
    But, as Kodia was well aware, it wasn't her job to question orders from GTSC HQ. She had been sent to Mammon-Delta to investigate the theft of Tridium ore from the Golactus mining colony, a shipment worth a billion credits. An act of piracy of that magnitude, Kody knew, would require careful planning and coordination. No fringe buccaneers could have pulled off a heist like that. But, the details in her sealed orders were murky. She'd have to wait for UBTC local Prime Administrator, Ohb Gluut, to explain it.
    As if on cue, Kodia's comm receiver began to crackle. “Approaching vessel, identify yourself.” the translated mechanical voice chirped. “What is your business in this sector?”
    “Not too friendly.” Kodia said to herself as she picked up the receiver and replied. “This is Lt. Kodia Areb of the Galactic Transport Security Corps., I.D. Code 36745-420, requesting docking coordinates, over.”
    There was a pregnant pause before the reply crackled over the comm. “State your business on Mammon-Delta, unit 36745-420. This is a protected facility.”
    “Stupid security bots!” Kody grumbled. “I've been assigned by the GTSC to investigate an act of piracy in a neighboring sector.” she said into the receiver. “I have a meeting scheduled with Prime Administrator Gluut. Over.”
    Yet another pause, then, “Permission to land granted. Approach at space-normal speed. Use the third plaza for landing.”
    “Roger.” Kody replied. “Slow approach, plaza number three.”
    “You will be met by security bots upon landing.” The voice crackled again. “No weapons of any kind are permitted.”
    Kodia frowned. “No weapons?” she queried. “Not even my side-arm? I am a security officer.”
    “No weapons.” the voice repeated.
    “But, it's a non-lethal weapon,” Kody protested. “A magnetic pulse gun. Strictly defensive.”
    “You have your orders, unit 36745-420.” the voice crackled back mechanically. “Proceed to platform-3 without further delay. Out.”
    Kodia replaced the comm receiver in a huff. “Who do these banksters think they are?” she groused. “No side-arms? Even for a security officer?” Then she recalled that, at all UBTC facilities, security was handled entirely by bots. Bots couldn't be bribed, or have feelings. They made perfect guards. Greedy bankers, she realized, wouldn't want to pay live officers who might not follow their orders absolutely.
    Annoyed, Kodia guided her Prima cruiser into the atmosphere of the small planet and switched on her retro-rotors to slow her descent. The little disc-shaped ship lurched slightly as the big fans kicked in, lightly at first, then with more vigor as the cruiser descended. As the ship pierced the dense cloud cover, the UBTC central HQ for Mammon-Delta was immediately visible. Kody was impressed. The HQ center was a mammoth floating fortress, suspended by graviton pulse beams, at least thirty miles above the planet's surface. The brown, rocky terrain below didn't look inviting at all, but the floating palace was a gleaming glass and gold-steel wonder, almost beyond description.
    Kodia whistled. “The bastards do like to show off.” she muttered
    When a censor began to beep on her console, Kody flipped the appropriate switches to begin the landing cycle. As she started her approach, several bot-manned drone cruisers buzzed past her. The plasma fuel they used left a blue-green streak in the wake of the sleek, wedge-shaped ships. They seemed to be exiting from every landing platform on the HQ center and patrolling the skies in all directions. Two of them even flanked her Prima-cruiser and escorted her down.
    Kody raised a brow. “They're also paranoid!” she observed.
    About this time, she felt a tug on the nose of her cruiser as a tractor beam from landing plaza-3 locked onto it and began to pull the ship toward the platform. Kody knew many embassies used a landing tractor on approaching vessels, but she wasn't aware that a commerce center took such elaborate precautions. So as not to waste energy, she shut off her pulse engine and landing rotors. She knew the carefully calibrated landing tractor would guide her cruiser in safely. Although over-cautious, it was a smooth process, and it saved Kodia the trouble of having to settle on the typically under-sized landing plaza.
    The tractor beam deposited Kody's Prima cruiser on the landing pad without a hitch. A set of pneumatic docking clamps automatically engaged and pinned the cruiser's landing skis to the dock. When she heard the hiss of the compression seals setting and felt the ship settle to a rest, Kodia unclasped her flight harness, stood and stretched. She took off her helmet and unzipped her flight suit. Underneath was her brief, blue, meta-plastic GTSC uniform, emblazoned with a large, gold star across the bosom. After giving her fur a swift pat-down and putting her long, blond hair into a ponytail, Kody sighed. “I guess I'd best get this over with.” she muttered drearily. Almost instinctively she reached for the white holster and belt that held her magnetic pulse pistol, but then paused.
    “That's right,” she griped. “No side-arms.” As she replaced the holster on the rack, a cold shiver ran the length of her spine. That 'no weapons' nonsense was really bugging Kodia. It didn't surprise her that these banker types were paranoid, but there was something fishy about the whole business. With a private army of bots at their command, the UBTC had no need of aid from the GTSC. True, according to intergalactic law, they couldn't arbitrate their own cases. Criminal claims still had to go through the United Galaxy court system. Possibly they wanted an authorized arm of the judiciary to support the legality of their own investigation, since the UBTC was infamous for its self-centered bias in such matters. The case could be brought to trial much more swiftly if the charges involved were verified by an unbiased source.
    But, as Kody knew, the UBTC had been bucking the court system for years, so that argument seemed flimsy. By now, the Consortium was an entity in and of itself, a power all but separate from the courts, and from laws generally. They did what they wanted, then bribed and lobbied their way out of it later. Kody recalled several incidents in her own experience concerning those connected to the UBTC and the leniency shown toward their unprincipled behavior. One incident in particular stood out in Kodia's mind. It involved a young Plebian hot-shot she'd busted in the Trisis sector. He'd gone on a drunken spree, stolen a cruiser, destroyed property, and assaulted a Kensyan woman. Kody had taken pleasure in running him in, (after putting a dent in his amphibian tail with her pulse gun.) But his rich, UBTC connected uncle had bailed him out and then bribed officials into dropping all charges. Such corruption was common, even in the so-called democratic sectors, especially where the UBTC was concerned. Practically every planet in the galaxy owed them credits and feared vindictive foreclosure on their debts if they defied the bankers. It was a detestable situation, but a fact of life. Love them or hate them, the UBTC wasn't going anywhere, and as a GTSC officer, it was Kodia's duty to assist this 'legitimate enterprise' in recovering its stolen assets, and corralling the pirates responsible for the theft. Keeping that in mind with some effort, Kody summoned her most professional facade, opened the hatch and exited her Prima cruiser.
    As she descended the ramp, she was met by a small company of security bots, all of whom, she noted, were armed with deadly plasma blasters. “Paranoid!” Kody hissed to herself as she neared the guard captain.
    The guard captain scanned Kody from head to toe with its insect like eye cameras. “State your identity and purpose, alien.” its metallic voice crackled.
    “Officer Kodia Areb of the Galactic Transport Security Corps.” Kody answered. “Here to hold conference with Prime Administrator Ohb Gluut.”
    “Code number?” the guard captain barked.
    “36745-420.” Kodia intoned wearily. These robots and their silly numbers, she mused. Numbers were all they could grasp.
    “That computes.” the guard captain clicked. “Follow, and do not deviate from instructed course.”
    “Yes, sir!” Kody said mockingly.
    Kodia was maneuvered into the center of the guard company, then marched lockstep down the arm of the landing plaza and into the building. Inside, the huge glass and gold-steel structure was even more impressive than outside. It was many levels high and bustling from top to bottom with activity as Plebian and Cardonian bankers, merchants, and various office staff hustled about, tending to their myriad duties. The sheer amount of credits required to build such a grossly magnificent facility staggered Kodia's imagination. Her Bruinian people were a humble lot, unaccustomed to such preposterous extravagance. How any group as unwholesomely rich as these ridiculous bankers could complain as much as they did confounded Kodia.
    The guard company took Kody to a sky-lift and boarded it with her, never failing to keep her surrounded on all sides. The sky-lift hummed to life and Kodia and her guardians were hoisted up to the 150th level – the executive suite. “No one sits higher than the king.” Kody mused. When the lift finally reached its destination and the hydraulic doors slid open, Kodia was escorted down a long, winding hallway that led to the office of Ohb Gluut. Along the way, she passed several offices and saw the busy support staff bustling away in front of their view screens. They monitored galactic market reports, schmoozed clients and potential clients, smooth-talked sector officials, threatened legal actions on delinquent account holders, and generally made life miserable all over the galaxy. In short, a typical business day at the UBTC.
    Kody noted that the top staffers were all Plebian. No Cardonians worked on the infamous upper level. A strange people, Kodia thought. Originally, the Plebians and Cardonians were one race, along with a third component people, the Dresdians. They had been of one species and all shared the same home world, but centuries of societal segregation had since produced three distinct races divided by class. The Plebians were, of course, the elites – the managers, leaders, and law makers. They ruled absolutely, not so much by any specific law, or divine right, but rather by a centuries-old apathetic acceptance of the situation on the part of the other two groups.
    The Cardonians were the eternal middle class – the supervisors, directors, scientists, doctors, lawyers, and general professionals. They were all well educated and taught almost from infancy to support and defend the social order, and to carry out the commandments of the wealthy Plebians. The social arrangement had left the Cardonians an ever zealous, but unfulfilled race – a Prometheus race – forever reaching for that which, by their own apathetic decree, they could never have.
    The third race were the Dresdians. Kody had only seen a tiny handful of them, as they were rarely allowed to leave their home world. The Dresdians were the servant class, the drudge-laborers, day workers, the street beggars, or what ever other filthy occupation the other two races wanted no part of. They were kept in abject poverty and used as an example of what becomes of the dull-witted, or less-than-useful members of society. To call the Dresdians down-trodden would have been a poiltism. They had rights under the law, but this was never recognized in the Plebian controlled courts of their home world. Dresdians were thought of as a subordinate, criminally inclined sub-culture, barely sentient and always expendable. Years before, when the Dresdian population grew too large, Cardonian scientists, acting on Plebian orders, would introduce a fatal virus among the Dresdians to thin their numbers to more manageable levels. Only in recent years had the galactic courts banned the practice of 'population management', as the Plebians called it – a decision the Plebians objected to fiercely. They were still appealing the judgement, calling it a violation of planetary rights, and an imposition of 'big government'.
    Just recalling all these unsavory tidbits about her hosts made Kody want to skip the assignment and get as far away from the Getas sector as her Prima cruiser would carry her. But that, of course, was out-of-the-question. Sector Chief Sujad would not be pleased. The UBTC had considerable influence with the surrounding jurisdictions, even in Kody's home sector to some extent. No doubt some of the judges, even a few of the GTSC higher-ups were on the Plebian payroll. This left it difficult for Sector Chiefs and their departments to apply the laws fairly, no matter how honest they were. It also put them at the disposal of the UBTC, and obligated individual officers, like Kodia, to keep silent and go along with the whole sordid masquerade. Merely thinking about it brought a sour taste into Kody's mouth.
    Kodia and the guard company escorting her finally came to a pair of huge, ornately decorated, gold-steel doors, which Kody realized, must lead to the office of the Prime Administrator.
    “Halt!” the guard captain ordered. He swiveled his insect like head and glared at Kodia.”You will wait here, alien, while your presence is announced to the Prime Unit.”
    “Whatever you say, bug-eyes.” Kody sniped.
    The bot clicked as it tried to make sense of Kodia's insult, then, apparently deciding it was nonsense, clicked again, swiveled its head and rolled forward to activate the door buzzer. An intercom crackled and a voice that must have belonged to the Prime Administrator came over the line.
    “What is it, captain?” the voice asked.
    “Unit 36745-420 has arrived, Prime Unit.” the guard captain clicked. “Requests an audience.”
    “Show her in.” the voice replied.
    After the buzzer sounded and the pneumatic lock hissed and released, the bot captain opened the needlessly ornate, gold-steel doors and rolled into the spacious office beyond. A moment later, Kodia was asked to follow. As she entered the office, Kody was both impressed by its splendor, and disgusted by its excess – a duality of reaction she was becoming uneasily accustomed to since arriving on Mammon-Delta. She had expected the office to be big, but it was huge – almost large enough to park her Prima cruiser in – and decorated with lavish abandon. There were gorgeous Synovian tapestries draped on some of the walls, each worth a king's ransom. Fine Kublian sculptures rested on pedestals, and a full-sized fountain featuring a nubile (and nude) Kublian woman pouring water from an urn into a shimmering pool filled with rare Multonian glitter fish. There were also bronze globes, Kodia noticed, depicting several UBTC controlled planets in the sector – those she surmised, most likely under the personal influence of Ohb Gluut, rather like trophies of the Prime Administrator's commercial conquests.
    “Typical.” Kodia muttered with distaste.
    Arranged throughout the office were rare and beautiful potted plants that, along with the presence of the massive fountain, lent the room the feel of a garden, and a magnificent one at that. The plants came from every planet in the galaxy, including one or two from Kody's home world of Bruina. In spite of her aversion to the excess, Kodia couldn't help but be impressed by the grandeur of it all. She glanced at the floor, made as it was of the finest Kaslian marble, and noticed a path of single gold bricks inlaid in the marble – a path of gold, Kody mused, that led, no doubt, directly to the Prime Administrator's desk. There was a wearisome triteness to this brand of hubris that drained Kodia of all emotion. Annoyed, she followed the golden path through the maze of plants, sculptures, and totems until Ohb Gluut's huge, floating, metal desk came into view. Behind the desk was a massive glass wall that over looked the sky-city, fashioned, no doubt, so that the Prime Administrator could look down on the city from his splendid perch and be reminded of his own magnificence.
    “Come in, officer,” Ohb Gluut's oily voice sounded from off to Kodia's right. “Do excuse the guards. They are a zealous lot.” A moment later, Gluut himself appeared from behind a curtain of Sudaskan palm plants – a great, blue, frog like ball of lard seated in a personal conveyance chair that was suspended, like his desk and the city itself, by gravity pulse beams.
    “Unit 36745-420 has arrived.” the guard captain announced as Kody emerged from the artificial jungle.
    “I have eyes, captain,” Gluut said in his slurpy hiss of a voice. “You may go, now.”
    The bot hesitated. “Security protocol specifies that an armed guard must be present whenever the Prime Unit is in the presence of alien inferiors.” it clicked.
    “Inferiors?” Kodia grimaced. Even the bots here were programmed to be bigots!
    “I hardly think this little unarmed girl could do me any harm, captain.” Gluut drawled condescendingly. “Attend to your other duties.”
    Kodia rolled her eyes and bit her tongue.
    “Prime Unit's orders computed.” the bot captain clicked. It then pivoted its insect like body on its wheeled base and rolled back through the plant maze toward the office entrance.
    Kody watched it depart, then turned her brown eyes on the bloated, toadish Prime Administrator. The Plebian drew his hover chair close to her by means of the toggle control always clutched in his webbed hand and bent over to examine Kodia with his huge, glassy, yellow eyes. The thin, twisted smile he perpetually wore on his frog's face twitched slightly as he eyed her up and down.
    “You're quite the little beauty, aren't you?” he slurped. “A prime specimen, I must say.” Gluut extended a webbed hand, lifted Kody's paw to his thin, rubbery lips and kissed it, leaving it wet and clammy. Kodia shivered in disgust, but said nothing. Clearly, Gluut was a sexist as well as a bigot and a fiscal tyrant. “May I welcome you to Mammon-Delta.” he drawled.
    “Thank you.” was all Kodia could bring herself to say.
    “Won't you please have a seat and be comfortable.” Gluut indicated a low, fluffy-looking, hassock like piece of furniture near his floating desk. Kodia had the distinct impression that this ridiculous hassock was a seat Gluut offered only to female visitors, one meant to put them virtually on their knees before him.
    “Thank you again.” she managed with some reserve. She positioned herself on the hassock and made and effort to cross her legs. She found the maneuver difficult, however, for as soon as she was seated, she felt her rump oozing into the pliable material of the hassock. It was almost like sitting on cloth covered jelly. Kody felt a flush of embarrassment, but kept quiet about it.
    Gluut grinned nastily at her. “I trust you find the seat to your liking.” he slurped. “I had it brought in especially for your comfort.”
    “It's fine.” Kodia replied with measured coolness. She knew he was trying to make her uneasy, and she wasn't going to give the bastard the satisfaction.
    “Good.” Gluut replied. He cut his glassy eyes and grinned wider, allowing his big, square teeth to show. He then maneuvered his hover chair back behind his floating desk and stared down at his furred guest from over it, continuing to appraise her. After a moment, he said: “I trust you had no trouble on your flight?”
    Kody raised a brow. “Should I have?” she asked.
    “No, no,” Gluut said, waving a webbed hand. “But, after the shipment of Tridium ore was stolen, I've been concerned about increased pirate activity in the surrounding sectors.” His nasty smile narrowed as he eyed Kodia. “After all, a woman, even an armed, er, officer, is a prime target for such ruffians when she's alone in space.”
    After an awkward pause, Kodia folded her arms and matched the Prime Administrator's appraising glare. “I'm a trained pilot and GTSC officer," she said with some impatience. “I know how to deal with pirates.”
    Gluut gave her a condescending smirk. “Yes, I'm sure you do, dear. You come highly recommended.”
    Kodia tensed a bit, but maintained her poise. “I do?”
    Gluut's oily grin remained fixed. “Of course.” he said. “Your Sector Chief was most forthcoming concerning you and your record.”
    This bit of news surprised Kody. Chief Sujad hadn't mentioned communicating with Gluut personally. “I wasn't aware Chief Sujad had spoken to you. He merely explained that the UBTC had requested an investigating officer be assigned to this case.”
    “They did,” Gluut answered, studying Kodia carefully. “But since the ore shipment was stolen on my watch, so-to-speak, I sent a second communication directly to GTSC HQ, requesting a single, competent officer to conduct an investigation to support the primary conclusions of our own investigation. Strictly to adhere to jurisdictional protocols, you understand.”
    Kody narrowed her eyes. It had been just as she'd suspected. They had already investigated the theft and were simply looking for that unbiased second opinion required by the galactic courts. “So, you've already investigated the matter.” she remarked with unmasked impatience.
    “Well, of course we have.” Gluut declared. “We have one suspect in custody right now, here at our facility detention center. We're currently in the process of interrogating him, and should have the rest of the dirty gang shortly. You'll be given a full report.”
    “I see.” Kodia said coldly. She was not pleased at this news. It felt almost like a competency test for her.
    Gluut eyed her shrewdly. “You seem ill-at-ease, Lt. Areb.” he observed. “Are you nervous about something?”
    Kodia glared at the grinning Plebian. “Not nervous, just feeling a bit superfluous.”
    “Why, whatever do you mean?” Gluut asked mockingly.
    “If you've already investigated, corralled a suspect, grilled him, and apparently wrapped the whole thing up yourselves, why drag me into it?” she asked.
    “I've already explained, my dear, that the galactic courts seem tepid on allowing the UBTC to arbitrate our own disputes.” Gluut intoned. “Blame them, not us. If it were up to me, we'd never bother with the courts, or galactic judiciaries. We're quite capable of protecting our own assets.”
    That last remark was a veiled threat, and Kody knew it. “I'll bet you are.” she said caustically, making no effort to hide her contempt. “But, be warned, Administrator, I don't intend to just flip through your security details' report and rubber stamp it. I'll be conducting a proper investigation.”
    Gluut took a long, cylindrical Kelvian pipe from his desk and put it in his broad mouth. He stuffed the pipe with tobacco and lit it with a laser lighter. He deliberately drew in a long drag of smoke and let it trail out through his nose slits as he casually appraised the Bruinian woman before him. “You're a very determined little girl.” he said slowly. “Sujad said you were tenacious. I can see now he wasn't exaggerating.”
    Kodia stiffened. There was that term again: 'little girl'. Her dislike for the Plebian grew with each passing second.
    “Our bot security details are very efficient,” Gluut went on quietly. “They didn't botch the investigation, I assure you. You have to understand, my dear, that the UBTC is constantly under attack by certain vociferous legalistas who happen to detest free enterprise. These groups are forever interfering with our efforts to arbitrate our disputes by clogging the courts with claims of bias on our part. Wholly baseless claims, I needn't add. As a result, we always need a secondary legally recognized organization to corroborate our findings in cases of large capitol thefts. Just more bureaucratic red-tape the freedom haters like to wrap us up in.” The Plebian sighed dramatically. “Heavy lies the head that wears the crown.”
    “My heart bleeds for you.” Kody said sarcastically. “You do know Kelvian pipes are illegal, right? The metal in the bowl emits a controlled narcotic substance into the tobacco as it's smoked.”
    Gluut smiled. “Of course they're illegal,” he drawled. “As well they should be, for inferior specimens who would likely become addicted to the mild intoxicating sensations.” His grin widened. “Fortunately, for one of rock-solid character, such as I, addiction is out-of-the-question. I also have the proper medical permit to use the pipe, of course.”
    “Of course.” Kodia replied bitterly. He was smoking the illegal pipe in front of her to insult her, Kody knew. She also knew she could do nothing about it. No doubt he did have a medical permit. It was meant to display his contempt for any authority but his own. Then, something struck Kodia that she hadn't noticed before – Gluut wasn't using a universal translator device, as she was. The tell-tale metallic twang wasn't present when he spoke. He was speaking fluent Bruinian, her native tongue. “I notice you speak my language.” she pointed out.
    Gluut nodded. “Yes.” he said. “I speak fifty two separate tongues, along with their various sub-dialects. I find being multi-lingual to be an invaluable asset in business. And translators sometimes miss the finer points of conversation.” He grinned. “In language, as in business, the devil is in the details.”
    “You don't say?” Kodia replied warily.
    “On the contrary, I do say.” Gluut went on. “I did quite a bit of brokering in your home sector years ago. Though not so much on your home world.” He frowned. “Seems your little people reject common sense business practices in favor of collectivism. Lobbying there is an impossible task. Far too many protectionist laws in place to inhibit the flow of commerce.” He shook his head disparagingly. “Certainly no place for anyone interested in the promotion of entrepreneurship to go calling.”
    Kody suppressed a proud chuckle, but, despite this, her exquisite features beamed. “Regulations are a bummer, aren't they?” she quipped.
    Gluut eyed her shrewdly. “They are indeed.” he finally said. “But, I rather suspect we are getting off-track. We were discussing the investigation of the stolen Tridium ore, if you recall.”
    “I never forgot.” Kody said. “One million units, each with a value of 1,000 credits, correct?”
    “Correct.” Gluut verified. “A one billion credit shipment of pure Tridium ore from the Golactus mining colony. Full bars, each weighing approximately one pound. They were sectioned out of the ore vein in precise increments by means of a laser cutter in order to make them easier to ship and store.”
    “Plus,” Kodia pointed out, “you don't have to pay workers at a refining company to process the ore for you if you simply add that to the miners' long list of duties.”
    Gluut's ever present grin twitched slightly. “True. Very astute business decision, wouldn't you say?”
    “Depends,” Kody answered. “On whether you're a banker or a miner.”
    Gluut never flinched. “Fortunately, I never concern myself with the well-being of others. It's the individualist nature of my fine race.”
    Kody raised a brow. “That's one way of characterizing it.” she said wryly. “But, we're going off-track again. We were talking about the shipment. Where was it hijacked?”
    “In the Novus sector,” Gluut replied. “Near Baran-4. It's all in the report. The Novus sector is well known for pirate activity.”
    “It's also a peculiar route to take for a freighter leaving Golactus.” Kody pointed out. “That's in the Myrad sector. Why the round about flight plan?”
    “To confuse the pirates, of course.” Gluut answered. “They wouldn't expect a freighter to sail right through their own haunts.”
    “Obviously, they did.” said Kodia. “They knocked it over, didn't they?”
    Gluut took a long drag on his Kelvian pipe before replying. “Clearly, they had been tipped off, as you'll read in our report. No doubt by some alien mole. Maybe a corrupt miner, or space dock worker – a lowly lot, both. You can never trust the working class.”
    Kodia suppressed a growl. “I trust you have evidence to support that contention.” she said coldly.
    “Check the report.” was Gluut's response. “The freighter was dressed to resemble a garbage scow. No pea-brained buccaneer could have recognized it as a cargo vessel. They were obviously tipped off. Any fool can see that.”
    Kodia closed her eyes, let her anger ease, then replied. “You mentioned having a suspect in custody.”
    “Yes,” said Gluut. “A young Dresdian thug. Too stupid, of course, to have a central role, but clearly part of the pirate crew.” Gluut took a long drag off his Kelvian pipe, then went on. “We normally try to keep the trash of our home world confined to the planet. However, now and again, one of our off-world enterprises requires the presence of a few of them. And, once in a while, we've had some of the ungrateful scum run off on us. Naturally, they gravitate immediately to the lower elements of whatever planet they happen to be on. Birds of a feather, as they say. It's this type of vermin that make up the pirate hoards now plaguing the Novus sector.” He smiled nastily. “Plaguing it in spite of the collectivist efforts of organizations like yours, Lieutenant.”
    Kodia glared, but said nothing.
    “I've said all along that all that's needed to clean up the Novus sector is a stiff regiment of UBTC security bots with unlimited freedom to act.” Gluut continued. “But the bleeding hearts on the courts would scream bloody murder if we did that, so, we honest, hard-working galactic citizens must continue to endure the blight of piracy.” Gluut again sighed dramatically. “Just another burden we entrepreneurs must bear, along with being responsible for shoring up the very pillars of civilization.”
    “Well, for the sake of civilization, I hope your backs hold out.” Kody said sarcastically.
    Gluut sneered. “Now that you have all the information you need, perhaps you'll be good enough to tell me what your first step will be in conducting your... investigation.”
    “I don't have all the information I need.” Kodia said as she stood up. “I haven't read your report yet. After I do, I'll need to interview your prisoner. I'll play it by ear from there.”
    “Don't waste your time,” said Gluut, “about the prisoner, I mean. The security bots have already questioned him. They even used enhanced interrogation techniques. He told nothing but lies, the dirty little thug. You'll get nothing from him.”
    Kody glared at Gluut. “Enhanced interrogation? You mean torture!” she growled. “That's illegal, and I'll be entering that in my report.”
    Gluut shrugged. “Won't matter,” he drawled nonchalantly. “Under the 'Galactic Homeworld Protection Act', enhanced interrogation is perfectly legal when dealing with acts of terrorism.”
    “Theft isn't terrorism!” Kodia snarled. “And the incident didn't occur in your home space, so there was no excuse to enact that provision!”
    “But the prisoner is Dresdian,” Gluut countered calmly. “A citizen, willing or not, of our home planet. Since his involvement in the crime was derived from his unreasoning desire to disrupt the social order of our world, that makes him a terrorist, and thereby qualifies the incident as an act of terrorism.”
    “How do you know his motives were political?” Kodia demanded. “You told me he wouldn't talk.”
    “That's all he would spout during the interrogation,” Gluut replied. “A lot of anarchist, anti-establishment tripe. Typical liberator filth.”
    Kodia was beside herself with rage. It was all she could do to keep from leaping over Gluut's floating desk and clawing out his glassy, yellow eyes. “I want to talk to the prisoner,” she said with a dangerous calm in her voice. “Right now.”
    “Wouldn't you be better off reading our report first?” Gluut asked, looking amused.
    “I don't think I'll need to read it at all.” Kodia said bluntly. I'll conduct my own investigation and come to my own conclusions.”
    “Have it your way, officer.” Gluut drawled lazily. “This whole exercise is merely cosmetic, anyway. The end result won't be affected. That much I'll see to personally.”
    Kody was livid, but kept her composure with effort. “Where is the prisoner being held?” she asked.
    “At the detention center near the center of the city.” Gluut answered. “I'll have a company of guards escort you there.”
    “I suppose that's required?” Kodia asked acridly.
    “Of course.” Gluut replied. “All aliens within a financial hub must be accompanied by armed guards at all times.” he intoned. “We have our assets to think of, you know.”
    Kody flashed a cold smile. “Yes. You must keep your assets covered, mustn't you.”
    Gluut smiled. “Quite.” he said. “Now, if you have nothing further, I must get back to business. I'll have the guards meet you at the door.”
    True to his word, Gluut had a company of bot guards meet Kodia immediately outside his office door. The truth was, the first company had probably never left. Bots are infinitely patient. Once again, they surrounded Kody and marched her back to the sky-lift. When the lift had settled on the first floor, they continued to escort her, this time out of the building to the nearest transport shuttle bay. There, Kodia and her robot entourage boarded a tram and began the short journey to the city's central detention facility. When the shuttle arrived at the disembarking pad in front of the detention facility, Kodia and the guard company exited it and started up the walkway to the main gate. The gate and the wall it was attached too, were fashioned of cold, gray stone, smooth and featureless – probably two meters thick. There were two heavy-duty security bots standing before the gate, each armed with a proton cannon.
    “Good grief!” Kody thought. “They use war-bots for prison guards?”
    The huge, menacing soldier robots activated as Kodia and her escort approached, their red eyes gleaming, their deadly cannons ready to fire. “Identify! State your purpose at this facility.” the lead war-bot croaked in its merciless mechanical voice.
    “Guard unit-4, I.D.# 772-302,” the trade facility guard captain chirped metalically. “Purpose: to escort alien #36745-420 to detention facility for prisoner interrogation. Authorization code: 11-86-345-001.”
    The war-bot clicked. Its bug like head swiveled, a green light lit between its red eyes, and it scanned Kodia from head to toe. It then turned its attention back to the smaller bot. “Organic life form has been scanned. It is free of weapons. Access granted. Report immediately to the facility administrator for further instructions.”
    “Affirmative.” the guard captain replied.
    The war-bots stepped aside, but kept their cannons trained on Kody as the heavy gate opened up. “Proceed.” the lead war-bot barked.
    Kodia and her escort filed past the war-bots and through the gate. As they approached the main facility building, Kodia was struck by the contrast between it and the other city buildings. No glass or gold-steel here, only cold gray stone and harsh, square angles. Clearly, it was meant to look stern and institutional – to send a message, no doubt, to potential trouble-makers how the UBTC dealt with dissent. As Kodia and her bot escorts entered the building, they were met by a small company of black-painted detention facility guard bots. They were much smaller than the war-bots, but, doubtless, just as lethal.
    “Detention facility security unit 270593-221,” the lead bot crackled. “You are ordered to transfer custody of the organic alien to this company.”
    “Acknowledged.” the trade facility guard captain clicked.
    “Custody?” Kodia remarked, annoyed.
    The bots ignored her. When the trade facility guards withdrew, Kody was once more surrounded, this time by the black-painted detention center bots. “You will follow this unit, alien,” the lead bot crackled. “You will not deviate from prescribed course.” It then swiveled on its wheeled lower body and trundled down the dimly lit corridor. Kody had no choice but to follow. She noticed as she passed down the dull, gray, featureless hallways, lit only by dim, greenish lights from above, that the interior of the prison complex was even drearier then the exterior. It had evidently been designed to instill despair in all unfortunate enough to be confined within its walls. The very building itself was a torture device. Kodia hoped she wouldn't be in it long. The bot guard attachment stopped at a green, metal door. The administrator's office, Kody surmised.
    “Halt.” the lead bot commanded. “Wait here.”
    Kodia waited patiently with the other bots while the lead machine rolled into the room beyond the door. She sighed heavily. The ridiculous security protocols on this planet were tiresome. A moment later, she was bade inside by the lead bot. When she entered the room, Kody was mildly surprised. It was brightly lit, painted a vibrant shade of blue, and full of plants and caged birds – birds from many worlds, picked, obviously, for their bright plumage and beautiful songs. It was like an oasis in a sea of despondency. Excess on the part of administrators appeared to be a local fetish.
    “Come in, come in,” a cheery sounding voice came from within. “That'll be all, guard.”
    Kody came further into the spacious room, passing the lead guard bot as it rolled out. Behind a large copper urn sporting a Fenusian tree fern stood a small Cardonian man, watering a Kelvian spider plant.
    “Ah, there you are,” the Cardonian said with a smile as he spotted Kodia. “Do come in, my dear. Don't be shy. I adore out-worlder women.”
    Kodia flinched. The males here were certainly an unenlightened lot, she told herself.
    “Now,” the little Cardonian said as he put up his watering can and came around to face Kodia, “let me get a proper look at you...” He was fatter than Cardonians usually were, obviously well fed and worked less hard than most of his ilk. He still had that frog like look indicative of his native species, a look shared by their Plebian and Dresdian cousins, though a bit less severe, somehow, in these Cardonians. He wiped his yellowish, webbed hands on the brown apron he wore as he eyed Kodia. “My,” he observed, “you do live up to the build-up, my dear.”
    “Build-up?” Kody asked, brow raised.
    “Oh,” he faltered, “please excuse me. I'm Uhan S'ntus, detention facility administrator.” He extended a flabby hand.
    Kodia reluctantly shook it. “At least he didn't kiss my paw.” she thought, relieved. “You didn't answer my question.” she pointed out. “Build-up?”
    “You do have an inquisitive mind, lieutenant.” S'ntus said as he waddled past her to his ornate wooden desk behind the wall of plants. “You see,” he went on as he eased his ponderous bulk into a seat behind the desk, “Prime Administrator Gluut sent me a message saying you were coming. He also mentioned how charming to look at you were. Just casually, you understand.”
    “I'll bet.” Kodia said crisply.
    “We are both connoisseurs of feminine beauty, you might say.” S'ntus slurped with a husky laugh. “Not only in our own fine ladies, but in women of all species.”
    “Some hobby.” Kodia smirked, arms folded.
    “It is diverting.” S'ntus gushed. “I'd say my taste in such matters rivals even Prime Administrator Gluut's.”
    “You're in fine company.” Kody said sarcastically.
    “Thank you, my dear, thank you.” S'ntus said, missing the insult entirely. “But, I'm sure you didn't come here to chat, now did you?”
    “No, sorry.” Kody replied.
    “Of course not. Have a seat.” S'ntus gestured to a wooden chair near his desk.
    “Thanks.” said Kodia as she sat down.
    “You've come to interview the Dresdian boy, haven't you?”
    “I have.” Kodia answered. “Dresdian scum, don't you mean?”
    S'ntus blinked. “Scum?” he asked. “No, I wouldn't characterize him as such. Misguided, perhaps, as young men sometimes are. It's too bad he got mixed up in that pirate business.”
    Kodia was glad S'ntus hadn't taken her bait. “Are you sure he was mixed up in it?” she asked.
    “According to the investigating security attachment he was.” S'ntus replied. “It's all in the report. Didn't Administrator Gluut give you a copy?”
    “He offered, I refused.” said Kody. “I'm conducting my own investigation.”
    “Shrewd.” S'ntus said with a grin.
    “Thank you.” said Kodia.
    “Still, the security attachment report must be accurate,” S'ntus observed. “Bots, as you must know, cannot lie.”
    “But they can make mistakes.” Kodia said.
    “True.” S'ntus agreed. “But rather unlikely. They're controlled by a Crime-5 central computer. And it's programmed with only the best investigative techniques.”
    “Machines aren't infallible,” said Kodia. “They can malfunction, and they can be tampered with.”
    “Impossible!” S'ntus scoffed. “The Crime-5 computer is concealed in an underground bunker at Consortium Central HQ on our home world. Only top Plebian officials are allowed anywhere near it. It's guarded by war-bots night and day. The chances that computer was tampered with are so remote it's hardly worth serious consideration!”
    “What about the individual bots?” Kody asked. “They have central processors that can be separately programmed, don't they?”
    “Well... yes,” S'ntus relented. “But not just by anybody. Only Plebian officials and high-ranking Cardonian technicians are capable of it. Why, if anyone other than an official went near a bot's central processor, he'd wind up with a face full of plasma.”
    Kodia nodded. “I see.” She leaned back in the wooden chair, crossed her legs, and rubbed her chin thoughtfully.
    “S'ntus eyed her carefully. “What's running through that pretty, blond head of yours?” he demanded.
    Kody smiled coyly at him. “Nothing.” she lied. “Blonds are empty-headed, remember.”
    “Hah!” snorted S'ntus. “You're not fooling me, young lady. You've got hold of something. And I'm not sure it's something healthy to consider!”
    “I think I'd better interview the prisoner, now.” Kodia replied evasively.
    S'ntus sighed. “Very well,” he conceded. “I'm forced to assume you know what you're doing. The boy is in cell block-6. The bots will escort you.”
    “Thank you.” she said as she rose.
    S'ntus rose and bowed dramatically. “Pleased to be of service, dear lady.” he drawled.
    Kody waved, then turned and made her way through the maze of plants back to the metal door. Outside, the black-painted prison bots were awaiting her. She was again surrounded and escorted through the dimly lit corridors to cell block-6. If possible, the gray stone walls looked drearier in this block than anywhere else in the drab prison complex. The bots stopped in front of a dirty, metal door marked cell-11. The lead bot approached the locking key pad beside the door, clicked and beeped and, a few seconds later, the door slid slowly open.
    “You will refrain from direct contact with the prisoner.” the bot warned Kodia when she entered the cell after it.
    “Whatever you say.” Kody drawled wearily.
    In the corner of the grimy, featureless room – a room out-fitted only with wash basin and a hard, slide-out pad for a bed – sat a thin, dour looking Dresdian. His pinkish skin was clammy and sickly. He resembled his Cardonian cousins, save for his gauntness and the hollowness of his large glassy eyes. He was young – 21 or 22 – but looked older than Kodia's 34. Poverty and social repression had taken it's toll.
    “Prisoner will rise for inspection and interrogation.” the guard bot commanded.
    “Go to Hell!” the Dresdian hissed.
    The guard bot rolled forward, its plasma gun raised and ready. “You will rise for inspection and interrogation, or be atomized.” it warned.
    “Then be done with it, damn you!” the Dresdian growled in a rage.
    The bot was about to fire when Kodia interceded. “Hold you fire, guard!” she shouted.
    The bot hesitated, confused. Its memory circuits clicked furiously.
    “Stand up, damn it!” Kodia barked in irritation. “This stupid display isn't heroic and it isn't worth dying over, you little idiot!”
    The Dresdian seemed to see the Bruinian woman for the first time. He blinked, then slowly stood and raised his skinny arms.
    The bot passed the green sensor beam over his body, then announced: “The prisoner is unarmed.”
    “Brilliant.” Kody said sarcastically. She turned her eyes on the skinny Dresdian youth. The marks of the enhanced interrogation techniques – big purple bruises, and a series of burns, welts and blisters – were all over his clammy, pink skin. Kodia's heart lurched. “Put your arms down and take a seat.” she said more gently. The Dresdian did as he was told, clearly too worn-out from his ordeal to put up an argument. “What's your name?” Kodia asked as she slowly seated herself on the far end of the bed-pad from the boy.
    “What do you care?” the boy shot back.
    “Don't be a bone-head!” Kody scolded. “Just answer the question.”
    “Zuud.” he finally answered. “You happy now?”
    “Well, Zuud,” Kodia said, her voice softer, “you certainly don't look like a fringe pirate to me.”
    Zuud glared at Kody. “Well I am, see!” he snapped. “And damn proud to be!”
    “You're proud of being a thief?” Kodia asked.
    “Yes.” Zuud declared, this time minus the youthful rage that had previously colored his discourse. “We're all proud to be thieves.”
    “Who all?” Kodia probed.
    Zuud grinned. “You think you're a smart little cop, don't you?” he sneered. “Well, I'll never turn in my brothers! Not to you, or anyone!” He looked away, shyly. “Even if you are pretty.”
    Kody raised a brow. “You think I'm pretty?”
    Zuud snorted. “That's why you're here, and we both know it.” He waved at the guard bot. “Gluut sent you because his tin-can guards couldn't beat or burn the information out of me. So now, they send some out-worlder babe in here to sweet-talk it out of me. Well, you can tell Gluut to forget it, sister! I'll never tell where the rest of the crew is, never!”
    Kodia felt a dull anger growing in her. “Listen, you insolent puppy,” she said slowly, “ever since I set foot on this rock, I've been subjected to one sexist crack after another. First Gluut, then S'ntus, now you.” She leaned closer to Zuud. “I didn't come here to be ogled, condescended to, or made sport of! I came here to investigate an act of piracy, and one way or another, I'm going to do my job! Got it?”
    The Dresdian swallowed and regarded Kodia more solemnly. “What I said still goes.” he declared.
    Kodia slapped her thighs and stood. “All right,” she said, exasperated, “Fine! You can rot in here for all I care! I've got a husband and two beautiful cubs waiting for me on Bruina that I haven't seen in weeks. I don't have time to waste on some punk kid who clearly doesn't know squat!” She turned and marched toward the door.
    “Wait!” Zuud said suddenly.
    Kodia paused in the doorway. Behind her, the bot guard clicked in confusion. “Yes?” Kody said.
    “What did you mean by that crack?” Zuud asked. “That I don't know anything?”
    “You didn't have anything to do with the pirate crew that stole that Tridium ore.” Kodia scoffed. “You're nothing more than a common little street yuk, looking to make a name for yourself. You probably hung out near space ports to pick up the poop on pirate activity, but, beyond that, you don't know your butt from a moon crater.”
    Zuud growled in a huff. “Why you little... I'll...”
    “What?” Kody asked, folding her arms and leaning against the door frame. “Attack me?”
    “Dresdians are a lot stronger than you puny, sawed-off Bruinians!” Zuud snarled, fists clenched.
    “You're forgetting him.” Kodia said, indicating the guard bot. “He'd fry you with that plasma blaster before you got within a meter of me.”
    Zuud's face fell and he flopped back on the bed-pad. “Let him.” he said, then put his face in his webbed hands.
    “Stop feeling sorry for yourself!” Kodia spat.
    “Why?” Zuud roared, his face tear-streaked. “No one else does! For me, or any of us! Go back to Bruina, lady cop. Let me the hell alone! I didn't ask to see you!”
    “I'm sorry.” Kodia said gently after, a respectful pause. “Really.”
    “You don't understand how it is for us. You've never been hungry.” Zuud said dejectedly.
    Kody patted her ample thighs. “Nope. Always ate well, as you can see.” She smiled sweetly.
    “Good for you!” Zuud carped.
    Kody softened. She crossed the cell and sat down on the end of the bed-pad. “I'm not going to pretend I know what it's like to be in your place.” she said soothingly. “I've never been hungry. Never been persecuted. Never been discriminated against, at least not on my own world. I've never been poor, or wanted for anything. Such things don't exist on Bruina. So, how could I know?”
    “Must be nice.” Zuud grumbled.
    Kodia smiled. “It is.” she assured him. “Very nice. We have a fine society. It wasn't always that way. We had our bumps, but we worked them out.”
    “How?” Zuud asked, fed-up and defeated.
    “By working together.” Kody answered. “By realizing that all our people deserved to share equally in the wealth and prosperity that our culture created. Not just a few privileged elites. It took centuries of bloodshed to teach us, but we eventually learned the lesson. And for the past three centuries, we've had a peaceful, prosperous, egalitarian society.”
    Zuud glanced at her. “Collectivists.” he scoffed.
    “That's what Gluut and his UBTC stripe might accuse us of, but we see it differently.” Kodia replied.
    “How do you reward the strong and the smart in a set-up like that?” Zuud demanded.
    “We don't.” Kodia said. “We've learned to play to the strengths of all our people, rather than catering to the specific strengths of a few.”
    Zuud stared at Kody. “You make it sound like paradise.” he said.
    Kodia shook her head. “Not paradise. But a lot closer to it than any UBTC controlled planet.”
    Zuud's hardened features softened for a moment, and for the first time, Kody saw the vulnerable, needy boy hiding behind Zuud's weary, Dresdian eyes. “Can you get me out of this?” he asked, a twinge of child like desperation creeping into his voice.
    “Maybe.” Kodia said. “That depends. Are you going to tell me the truth about that Tridium heist?”
    Zuud thought a long time, clearly conflicted. The bitter pirate wannabe in him clashed with the frightened, hopeful boy. Finally he looked at Kody. “How did you know I wasn't part of the crew that stole the ore?” he asked.
    Kodia's smile was warm and maternal. “Call it mother's instinct.” she said. “Plus, the fact that too many things didn't add up.”
    “I'm still not saying who did it.” Zuud maintained.
    “You don't have to.” Kodia replied. “I already know who did it. Or, who's behind it, anyway. And it wasn't any ill-equipped fringe buccaneers, either. So, stop worrying about them.”
    Zuud looked confused. “What are you talking about?” he demanded.
    Kody smiled mysteriously. “Never mind.” she said. “It's better you don't know.”
    Zuud cocked his head and eyed Kodia, unsure what to make of her. Before he could pry, however, Kody was on her feet. “Where are you going?” he asked.
    “Don't fret.” Kody said. “I'm going to try and sort out this twisted mess. Once I report my findings to the GTSC commissioner, he may ask a judge to release you to my custody. If so, you'll be taken to Theta-37. That's in Bruinian space, so no UBTC thugs to harass you.”
    “What then?” Zuud asked.
    “Well,” Kodia replied, “you'll still have to stand trial, but in an unbiased court. Or less biased, anyway. If you are sentenced, it'll only be for a few months at a GTSC holding facility. That's a king's palace next to this hole.”
    “Will... will you be there?” Zuud asked, embarrassed.
    Kody was touched. “I will if you want me there.” she said. “I'll have to testify, at any rate.” Zuud almost managed a smile. It made Kody happy to see it.
    “Interview period is at an end.” the guard bot suddenly clacked.
    Zuud and Kodia both jumped. They had forgotten the bot was there. “Well that sounded final.” Kody quipped. She glanced at Zuud and smiled warmly. “Just hold on.” she said. “It's not over yet.”
    Zuud nodded. He raised a webbed hand tentatively and was pleased when Kodia did the same.
    Kody stepped out of the cell, followed by the guard bot. She resisted the urge to look back as the door was shut and locked. Still, her heart lurched when she heard the metallic clank of the locking mechanism. Outside, she was surprised to see S'ntus waiting for her instead of a bot detachment.
    “How did your interview go?” he slurped, his glassy eyes probing.
    “Fine.” Kodia said cautiously. “Confirmed my suspicions.”
    S'ntus looked nervous. “I hope you didn't take anything he said too seriously.” he croaked. “Those Dresdians do tend to be melodramatic.”
    Kodia eyed the Cardonian suspiciously. “Why are you here?” she asked. “Where's the bot detachment?”
    “Oh, I didn't think you'd want them shadowing your every move, so I sent them to clean the cell air vents. They'll be busy for hours.” S'ntus replied.
    “I see.” said Kodia, narrowing her eyes. “I thought it was mandatory that off-worlders be accompanied by armed guards at all times.”
    “Oh, I'm armed.” S'ntus said, patting his holstered plasma blaster. “But, I was just terribly bored cooped up in that office. This little bit of excitement was the first fun I've had in ages!” He gestured. “Shall we walk back to my office? I have one or two reports I need you to sign.”
    Kodia hesitated, her gaze appraising.
    S'ntus blinked. “What's the matter?” he asked.
    “Ever since I landed here, I've been flanked by gun-toting robots.” Kodia observed warily. “Now, all of a sudden, it's no longer necessary? Just strikes me as odd.”
    S'ntus scoffed. “Come now, my dear,” he drawled, “I realize being suspicious is a good quality for a police woman, but let's not go overboard!”
    “What reports did you want signed?” Kody asked.
    “Why, confirmation papers.” said S'ntus, taken aback.
    “Pertaining to what?” Kody asked, equally confused.
    “Pertaining to the crime, of course!” S'ntus said impatiently. “Surely your interview confirms the security bots' initial findings about the lad.” S'ntus began walking.
    Kody hurried after him. “I told you, I never read that report!” she chimed. “I also told you I was preparing a report of my own!”
    “I assumed you were merely posturing,” S'ntus replied, “showing off a bit to prove your worth, you being a woman and all. I never dreamed you really meant that silly tripe.”
    “Tripe?” Kodia fumed. Her opinion of S'ntus plummeted.
    “Of course it's tripe!” S'ntus said irritably. “No UBTC arbitration committee is going to consider a conflicting report from an off-world female! Didn't you know why you were sent? They felt a woman would be more compliant. A second investigation is a waste of time!”
    The dull, gray corridors of the prison complex passed unnoticed as Kody, now boiling, hurried to keep pace with S'ntus. “And how did you come to those stupid conclusions?” She demanded.
    “Hang it, girl,” S'ntus griped, “we've already conducted an investigation, and we've got our perp. We'll round up his crew mates in due time. A second investigation will slow up the wheels!”
    “You've got an innocent boy!” Kodia roared. “Any first year rookie could see that! This is a cheap frame-job! And not even a very good one!”
    They had reached S'ntus's office by this time. He opened the door, then paused. “That's nonsense.” he groused. “We know what we're doing here! We have exactly the perp we wanted. And if you weren't so green yourself, you'd see that!” He gestured for Kody to enter his office with some irritation.
    She stormed inside, pushing through plant fronds, and stood near S'ntus's desk, ready to confront the portly Cardonian. “The perp you wanted?” she balked. “Do you honestly think any sector judge, any smart jury, for that matter, would convict on such flimsy, racially motivated evidence?”
    “Of course they will.” a familiar voice answered from off to Kodia's right. Kody whirled to see Ohb Gluut's hover chair emerge from the foliage. He wore his usual wide, condescending grin.
    Kodia felt an icy shiver run the length of her spine. Why would the chief officer of the banking complex be here at the prison facility? Kody had a dreadful suspicion that she already knew the answer.
    “Or rather they will believe, once enough palms have been greased.” Gluut stopped his hover chair only a meter from the tongue-tied Bruinian.
    “It was just as you said, Administrator Gluut.” said S'ntus. “She was feeding the prisoner collectivist filth. Sounded like liberator propaganda to me.”
    Kodia's heart was pounding, but she remained calm. “So, you bugged your cells.” she said, defiantly. “What does that prove?”
    “That it's you, not we who are biased.” Gluut replied. “When that recording is played at the inquest, any charges pending against us for acting outside our authority will wither on the vine.”
    “Was that what worried you?” Kodia asked. She was trying to put up a brave front, but her knees were knocking.
    “Hardly.” said Gluut. “But, it will secure a conviction of the Dresdian rat. And it will give us momentum in our push to declare marshal law in the Novus sector, under 'Commercial Trade Protection Provision 22' of the Galactic Charter.”
    Kody's eyes widened. “That's strictly an emergency provision!” she proclaimed.
    “Was an emergency provision.” Gluut corrected. “Once our lobbyists push through Article-36 at the Galactic Forum tomorrow, it'll be well on it's way to becoming a permanent memorandum.” He smiled, nastily. “And the UBTC has already agreed to provide the war-bots required to patrol the sector.”
    “For a nominal fee, I'm sure.” Kody said in disgust.
    Gluut laughed. “Is that what you think this is about?” he cackled. “A plot to sell sentinel robots to the Galactic Council rubes?”
    “Isn't it?” Kody replied. “The contract would be worth a small fortune.”
    “Small being the operative term.” Gluut drawled. “You should know by now, officer, that UBTC officials don't do small.” He reached out and plucked a beautiful Syslorian orchid and began stroking its fleshy pedals. “Why, the ore shipment alone was worth more than a contract for sentinel robots.”
    Kody's eyes narrowed. “Then, you were behind this! A staged theft! But what in hell do you hope to accomplish?”
    “You really are a thick one.” Gluut replied contemptuously. “Even for a woman.” He leveled an icy gaze on Kodia. “I am sick and damn tired of having my business affairs meddled in by this or that piss-tail government. And I've wasted enough time and resources bribing alien courts and officials. We at the UBTC want more direct control.”
    Kody's fear returned like a thunderbolt as Gluut's words and their ominous meaning sank in. “Direct control?” she stuttered.
    Gluut's gaze was furious. “Yes, you furry little collectivist fool! We don't play nice! We play for keeps! Power isn't a silly game! It's a deadly serious business!”
    S'ntus came near to Kodia, looking nearly as cold-blooded as his master.
    “You fat bastard!” Kodia swore. “You hired those fringe pirates to knock over that freighter and stash the ore to help finance your rotten little coup!”
    Glut smiled. “Well, it seems you're not all hair and breasts after all. You can be taught.”
    “Tell me... are you in this alone, or is the whole UBTC backing your play?” Kodia asked.
    Gluut shrugged. “We act independently.” he said. “Individualism is a key tenant of our belief system. But, the aims of all those in the UBTC are the same: profit and power. In that, we are united as one.”
    “You want total control of the Novus sector.” Kodia said.
    Gluut narrowed his eyes. “Eventually, we want total control of all sectors.”
    “The Galactic Council will object to those aims.” Kody pointed out. “You won't get away with it.”
    Gluut smiled coldly. “The tail-draggers of the galaxy have been telling us that for ages.” he groaned. “Every time we engage in a new venture, it's attacked, blasphemed, and damned. But, in the end, we always win. It's a simple matter of character.”
    “Or lack of it.” Kodia thought in disgust, but she couldn't form the words.
    “Speechless?” Gluut taunted. “That's a first. You've done nothing but run that rotten little collectivist trap of yours since you landed here. Maybe you're finally learning your place. Too bad you didn't learn it before you busted my nephew.”
    Kody did a double-take. “W-What?” she stammered.
    “Three months ago.” Gluut reminded her. “In the Trisis sector. My nephew had just graduated from the UBTC Academy on the home world and went to Trisis to blow off a little steam.” Gluut grinned. “Boys will be boys. I did the same thing at his age.”
    Kodia's mind raced, trying to connect Gluut's accusations with her own experiences. Then, it clicked – the young Plebian who'd gone on the drunken spree, the one who'd wrecked the hover car and assaulted the Kensyan woman, the one she'd arrested – had he been Gluut's nephew?
    “Having trouble connecting the dots?” Gluut mocked. Then, his voice darkened. “All right, I'll spell it out for you! You arrested my nephew for having a bit of a lark with some Kensyan trollop. You shot him with that silly stun-gun you pacifist types carry. When he fell from being hit by it, he broke his nasal ridge on the cement walkway. That's a bad spot to be injured for our people. In his case, it left him with a permanent nasal lisp in his voice.” Gluut's eyes narrowed. “We Plebians abhor all physical abnormalities, no matter how slight. A thing like that could ruin his career in business. If it does, it's your fault! That's why I contacted your boss at the GTSC and had you assigned to this case. To even the score for my nephew.”
    Kodia stared, disbelieving. “You cooked up this whole elaborate scheme just to get even with me for arresting your nephew?”
    “Don't be stupid!” Gluut spat. “Of course not! I just saw a way to kill two birds with one stone, as the saying goes. I knew I'd have to involve the courts and the GTSC in the wake of the ore theft, so why not put a crimp in your fuzzy little tail in the same gambit. It's a win win situation.”
    Kodia was dumb-struck by the magnitude of all she'd just digested. She stood staring, unable to protest. Even Sector Chief Sujad was in on it!
    S'ntus turned to Gluut. “Shall I throw her in a cell, Administrator?”
    Gluut shook his head. “No, no. “ he said, smiling. I have special plans for her.” He reached into his coat pocket and produced a communicator. “This is Gluut,” he said into it, “come and fetch the package.”
    A moment later, the door opened and S'ntus was surprised to see two aliens enter his office. The first was a Talibian, a short, brawny, four-armed being, and the other was a Cebian, a tall, glassy-eyed, lizard like creature. S'ntus knew at once they were both Novus sector fringe pirates. Each wore the tell-tale scar on the left side of his face.
    “You rang, boss?” the Cebian hissed .
    “I did, indeed.” said Gluut. “I have an additional passenger going back with you to the Novus sector.” He gestured to Kodia.
    Kody's eyes widened and her spine froze. She suddenly realized what Gluut had in mind for her.
    “Well,” hissed the Cebian as he eyed Kodia from top to bottom, “she ought to bring a fair price.”
    “My thoughts exactly.” Gluut replied, grinning cruelly. “The woman traders of the Talos sector would covet a prize like that.” He turned to Kodia. “How does that strike you, officer? If you behave yourself, the Sultan of Eros-Minor might take you for his personal harem. He might even let you wear clothes... occasionally.”
    Gluut, S'ntus, and the two alien pirates broke out in a chuckle that chilled Kodia's blood. She knew fighting was useless. Even if Gluut and S'ntus weren't armed, she was no match for either of the two pirates. Yet, the mere thought of being sold as a slave to the woman dealers of the Talos sector was almost too much to bear. She felt like bursting out in tears, but even if her pride allowed it, (and it wouldn't) her body was too rigid with fright to permit it. Then, something Gluut had said struck Kodia.
    “What did you mean by additional passenger?” she asked. She knew the answer, but needed to stall.
    “The Dresdian punk goes along, too.” Gluut confirmed. “It seems, not only did our suspect escape with the aid of some comrades, he also took you with him as a captive. Even stole your ship.”
    Kodia was shaking with fright, but kept her voice level. “No one will ever believe these two thugs broke into this fortress you call a prison, abducted a GTSC officer, stole her ship, and then escaped past a whole regiment of war-bots!”
    “They'll believe.” Gluut said. “You see, the thugs had an accomplice – one with code access to bot control. An inside man. A traitor.”
    “Who?” Kodia asked.
    “S'ntus, of course.” Gluut replied, leveling his gaze on the Prison Administrator.
    The color drained from S'ntus's face and his glassy eyes bugged. “N-No, Administrator!” he begged. “I am a loyal minion! I swear!”
    “Of course you are, fool.” said Gluut. “You're also expendable.” He gestured to the two pirates. The Cebian stepped forward.
    S'ntus reached for his blaster, but the pirate was faster, and burned the Cardonian Prison Administrator down with a single brilliant burst of plasma.
    Kodia let out a shriek of horror, but the Talibian seized her and clamped one of his four hands over her mouth.
    “Well done.” Gluut commented. “Now, take his pass key and go to cell block-6. The Dresdian is in cell-11.”
    As the Cebian fished in the pockets of the still smoldering S'ntus, Kody shook her mouth free of the Talibian's grip. “Gluut'll do the same thing to you, captain!” she shouted at the Cebian. “It's all part of his plan!” she went on as she struggled in the Talibian's four arms. “You don't think he'll leave either of you alive when you can finger him as the key man in this!”
    “Enough!” Gluut commanded. “Tie and gag that feisty snippet!”
    The Talibian hoisted the squirming woman and pinned her arms and legs. The Cebian moved toward her with cords and thick cloth. Her heart and mind racing, Kodia struggled madly, but the Talibian was many times stronger than she, and held her effortlessly as the Cebian wound the cords around her body and cinched them tightly in strategic spots. In seconds she couldn't move. The Cebian put a knot in the center of the heavy cloth and brought it toward Kody's face. “No!” she screamed and tried to turn away. But the Talibian wrenched her head around and pried open her mouth. The Cebian then thrust the gag in and knotted it behind Kodia's head. Kody squirmed and wrenched, but it was useless. Her bonds were firm and inescapable.
    Gluut smiled coldly. “Excellent.” he slurped.
    “What now?” the Cebian hissed.
    “There are barrels of kessel shavings in the supply closet.” Gluut said. “Empty them and put the bimbo inside one. Then, you can simply wheel her out with a dolly. We'll do the same with the Dresdian.”
    Kodia heaved against her bonds. She was terrified, but also furious at Gluut's arrogance. Never had she wished someone harm as badly as she did Ohb Gluut. Still, it seemed hopeless. The cords held her immobile, and the Talibian carried her about like a rag doll. Yet, if she didn't escape, she'd soon be a slave on some alien world, and poor Zuud would be dead! She knew she couldn't give up. A moment later, the Cebian returned pushing a large, black metal drum on a de-gravity dolly. That, Kody knew, was to be her prison. She bucked in the Talibian's grip, but he held her firmly, and when the drum was near enough, he plopped her inside without a hitch.
    “Fine” Gluut said approvingly. “Now, seal her up.”
    Kodia bleated as the drum lid was snapped in place and she was thrust into darkness. It seemed like the door of a tomb shutting. Her heart pounded and her thoughts were wild. She fought back tears as she felt the dolly lurch and knew her journey had begun. Would she ever see her husband and cubs again? Would she live through this? Would her life be worth living if she did? The questions blazed through her brain like a comet. Breathing, made hard by the heavy gag, was near impossible in the stifling metal prison. The air was stale and stunk of the metallic kessel shavings that had previously occupied the drum. It was pitch black, as only a tiny pair of holes had been punched in the lid to allow in light and air. Sound, too, was muted. Kodia could make out voices, but they sounded like disembodied noise. No words were discernible. Perhaps S'ntus had been given the kinder fate after all.
    Kody tried to calm down enough to think. She hadn't been surprised by Gluut's involvement in the theft plot. She'd more-or-less expected that from the beginning. He had been too smug by half right from the start, even for a Plebian banker. What had surprised her was how quickly he'd moved against her, how committed he was, and how personal he'd made the whole matter. Plebians were all cold-hearted businessmen, but they rarely directed their malice at any one being specifically. But, Gluut had hand-picked Kody as the pigeon in this caper because she had dared to arrest his no-good nephew. A grudge was petty, and Plebians, in spite of their avarice, were usually above pettiness. Gluut, Kodia realized, was a megalomaniac. As such, his plot to seize control of the galaxy was in keeping with his character. Kodia knew Gluut was a terrible threat and had to be stopped before his scheme plunged the whole galaxy into a needless war. She realized she had to escape somehow and warn the Galactic Council.
    The stale air, however, was taking its toll on Kodia. She had to calm down and concentrate on breathing, or risk suffocation. The muted sounds outside the drum were more pronounced now, at times quieter, other times frenzied. At last, they stabilized. “We must be on the air-tram.” Kody thought. “In the baggage compartment.” Sealed in the tram baggage compartment meant escape was impossible. Her best bet, Kodia realized, was once she were back on her own ship and out in space. Then, she'd have the advantage – or at least the odds would have leaned a bit more in her favor.
    It wasn't long before Kodia heard dull voices outside the drum and felt the vibrations when the de-gravity dolly was reactivated. Obviously, they were being taken off the tram. It was only a short distance from the transport pad to the banking facility, and an even shorter distance from there to the number three space ship landing plaza where Kody's Prima cruiser was docked. It would only be a few minutes and Kodia would be aboard her ship and possibly, she hoped, free of the barrel. The Talibian had groped her mercilessly while she was being tied. He obviously wanted her, and would likely free her from the barrel in order to satisfy his ugly urges. It was a gruesome thought, but at least it would give her a fighting chance at freedom.
    She glanced up at the pin-holes in the lid above and watched the fluctuations in the light stream. Judging from the frequency of the dark patches, Kody guessed they were taking a short-cut through the banking center lobby. The corresponding increase in muffled chatter outside the barrel seemed to confirm her suspicion. Since Gluut had obviously re-programmed every bot in the facility, they weren't likely to meet with any resistance. Soon, Kodia noticed the pin-hole of light coming from above go dark. About the same time, she felt the pulse of the de-gravity dolly die out and a metallic thump as the drum was deposited on a metal deck. She realized they had finally reached the landing plaza and had boarded her Prima cruiser. Her heart began thudding as she heard the magno-bands disengage and felt the drum wobble as the dolly was pulled away from it. Would they open the barrel and let her out? She could hardly contain herself. The brief imprisonment was already wearing on her nerves. Her body was cramped from being contorted so, and her muscles ached from the bite of the cords. For a long, awful moment there was dead silence and, for an instant, Kodia thought they were leaving her in the drum. She nearly panicked. Her anger, horror, and frustration came to a head. She heaved against the cords and slammed into the sides of the drum. She howled under the gag, demanding freedom.
    Amid her tirade, Kody heard the Cebian hiss a command above her, followed by a metallic clank. Seconds later, the drum lid popped off, and the lizard-faced pirate was glowering down at her. “Stop that squirming!” he ordered. “Or I'll take a lash to you!”
    Kodia went still, suddenly afraid. She stared up at her captor, wide-eyed.
    He glared down at her, grinning cruelly. “Full of fire aren't you, fuzzy?” he observed. Kody croaked as the pirate reached in with his clawed hands and hoisted her out of the barrel. He held her cramped body in front of him as if she were a child. “Not to my taste,” he hissed as he looked her over. “But, many find you lumpy, mammal types to be exotic.”
    Kodia quavered under the lizard man's touches, but she dared not resist and risk being thrust back in the drum.
    The Cebian indicated a second drum. “You're harmless,” he told Kody. “But, the Dresdian is strong. He stays put.”
    Kodia knew he was talking about Zuud. She could see the drum quivering and knew that the angry, young Dresdian was putting up a mighty fight within.
    “You should be thankful,” the Cebian hissed. “If you behave yourself, you'll live. He's to die.”
    The pirate let out a cruel, rattling chuckle that chilled Kodia. Even aboard her own ship, escape seemed hopeless. How could she, a one meter tall Bruinian, manage to escape her bonds and out-match two powerful alien pirates, GTSC officer or not? The odds were stacked like a mountain against her.
    At that moment, the Talibian entered the hold. He was rubbing his four hands together. “Sampling the merchandise?” he asked the other pirate.
    “Keep your warm-bloods!” the Cebian hissed, then tossed Kodia into the Talibian's waiting hands. “Did you check the ship?”
    “Yes.” the Talibian replied as he gripped Kody. “It's ready to launch.”
    “Good.” the Cebian said. “I'll notify Gluut and we can take off. Stash her in one of the cabins.”
    “She'll need water.” the Talibian noted while groping Kodia boorishly.
    “Then, give her some.” the Cebian commanded. “We don't want her dying on us before we reach the trading post.”
    Kodia shivered as the Talibian's four hands roved over her bound body, stroking and squeezing. If possible, Kody thought, this brute was even more repulsive than his reptilian superior. Was this to be her fate from now on? She shuddered at the thought.
    “What about the Dresdian?” the Talibian asked as he gnawed Kodia's ears.
    “We'll take care of him once we're out in space.” the Cebian replied. “Gluut's plans are all laid out.”
    “Do you think what the girl said earlier is true?” the Talibian asked. “About Gluut double-crossing us?”
    “Bah!” the Cebian scoffed. “She was just trying to save her own furry hide. Besides, we Cebians are always prepared for treachery!” He indicated Kodia. “Stop playing with the wench and stash her away! We must get this toy ship into space!”
    The Talibian tossed Kodia over his shoulder and carried her out of the hold and up to the Prima cruiser's small sleeping cabins as his companion headed for the bridge. The four-armed alien opened the sliding door to Kodia's quarters, ducked inside, and tossed Kody onto her bed like a sack of laundry. He then stood and stared down at her, a cruel smile stretched across his piggish face. “If I had a few minutes to spare...” he slurped. Kodia stared up at him, wide-eyed and disgusted. Just then, however, the Cebian hissed a command from the hallway, and the frustrated Talibian had to abandon his lustful plans.
    Once her assailant had left the cabin, Kodia breathed a sigh of relief, though she knew it was only a temporary reprieve. He'd be back as soon as the cruiser was out in space. If she were to avoid the grim fate he clearly had in mind for her, Kody knew she'd have to escape her bonds. “But how?” she pondered. She wasn't nearly strong enough to break the cords, and the knots used to secure them were tight and professional. It seemed useless. For a long time, Kodia lay on the bed, breathing steadily, trying to calm down and rest her aching muscles. Bruinians were a small people, not built for heavy physical burdens. The days of their huge, powerful ancestors were long past. After any grueling experience, a Bruinian needed a long rest period to recuperate. But, Kody didn't have that kind of time.
    She tensed on the bed as she felt the Prima cruiser's gravity pulse engines hum to life. Soon the ship would be airborne, then out in space. After the course had been plotted and set, the autopilot would do the rest. This would give her captors free time, and Kody knew how the Talibian would spend it. She shivered. Apart from her own peril, Zuud was in even greater danger. He was to die! And if Kodia were to rescue him, she'd first have to rescue herself. The thought of Zuud being cruelly murdered by the very thugs he'd so long admired, then blamed for the whole affair, set Kody's blood on fire.
    The sound of the docking clamps releasing alerted Kodia, and she felt her fur raising as the pulse engines engaged to de-gravitate the cruiser. They were lifting off. Time, Kody realized, was short. She shot glances all over the cramped cabin, looking for something she might use to cut the cords that bound her. Her scissors and clippers were in her grooming kit in the bathroom, out of reach. She felt the ship bank as the pirates brought it about in preparation to leave the atmosphere. The seconds crawled over Kody. She glanced at the mirror on the wall near her bed and grimaced at the sight of her bound body. Suddenly, her eyes widened as an idea came to her – the mirror! If she smashed it quietly, the razor-sharp shards could easily saw through her bonds. She glanced at the hatch to her cabin, knowing that, at any moment, the amorous Talibian might storm through to assault her. She had no choice but to risk being heard.
    Mustering her courage, Kodia slowly began to work her tied body. She raised her legs, swung them over the bed, and sat up in one smooth motion. Taking a deep breath, Kody placed her clawed feet on the floor and, with an effort, managed to stand. She balanced precariously on her tied feet, swaying to and fro, but, by flexing her muscles, remained upright. The mirror was only two short hops away. Kodia bit down on her gag and resolved herself. Zuud was depending on her. Failure was off the table. She built tension in her muscular legs by bending and straightening them. Then, when she was sure of her balance, she sprang suddenly, made the two hops easily, spun herself around, and leaned her body against the mirror. She heaved a sigh of relief. Success! So far.
    She had to steady herself against the mirror as she felt the ship bank once more, and heard the thudding hum of the pulse engines amp up. Kody was glad to hear it. The added noise would give her cover. She slid her feet out for leverage, pulled her tied paws up to the middle of her back, and placed her plump buttocks against the glass. Balancing, then, on the balls of her feet, Kody bent at the waist and glanced behind her. She saw that she was lined up perfectly. With a wiggle of her shoulders, and a little prayer, she raised up suddenly, then thrust her meaty rump hard against the mirror. As her buttocks flattened against the glass, Kodia heard what she'd hoped to hear – the sound of glass splitting and cracking. But, to her dismay, none of the shards fell to the floor. She'd have to use her feet to do the rest.
    With a groan, she hopped back around, and after a brief glance behind her, flung herself backwards onto her bed. She slid off onto the floor immediately, and used her feet to scoot herself back to the mirror. Once she was near enough, she stopped and panted doggedly, already worn out from the exertion. After a moment's rest she raised her legs and placed the balls of her feet against the spider webbed glass. She waited for the wave booms shimmering over the ship as it banked through the last layers of atmosphere to subside, then steadied herself, ready to complete her task. With controlled effort, Kody flexed her leg muscles and pushed near the center of the spiderweb. The glass cracked and when Kodia pulled her feet away, the shards fell to the carpeted floor. After throwing a glance over her shoulder at the cabin hatch, Kody scooted herself around and began rooting with her tied paws for a shard large enough to use for a knife. She located one quickly, picked it up carefully, and, with some painful contorting, twisted it around and began sawing on the cords that bound her. One slip, she knew, and she might slit her wrists and bleed to death before the pirates could do her any harm. After a few tense moments, Kodia was relieved to hear a pop as the elastic cord severed, and to feel the pressure on her arms and torso slacken. She wiggled about until the bindings fell away, then sighed heavily, stretched, and rubbed her aching arms. The pirates had used two cords to bind her – one for the upper body, one for her legs. With her torso free, Kody began sawing on the cord binding her legs. It snapped quickly and she unwound it and cast it away. She rubbed her stiff legs until feeling returned to them, then reached for the gag in her mouth.
    But, at that moment, Kodia felt the ship level off and she knew it had breached the atmosphere and was now in space. That meant the ship could be put on autopilot and the pirates would be free for other pursuits. The Talibian would soon be paying her a visit. As if on cue, she heard the thud of heavy boots in the corridor outside her cabin. Forgetting the gag, Kodia scrambled to her feet and, after a moment's thought, jerked the fleece blanket off her bed and hurried to the corner behind the cabin hatch. She pushed a stool she kept near her closet close to the door frame. Perching on it, she held the blanket ready, her sore muscles tense and poised to spring. She was terribly frightened and was shaking all over, but she was also resolved. The pirates had to go down!
    Seconds later, Kodia heard the guttural voice of the Talibian outside. “Knock, knock, girlie,” he chortled. “You didn't think I'd forget you, did you?”
    Kodia bit down on the knotted gag still fastened between her teeth and readied herself to leap. Just then, the hatch slid open and the four-armed pirate sauntered into the cabin, a smug grin on his piggish face. But the vapid grin sagged and his eyes bugged when he found Kody's bed empty.
    “What the--?” he croaked.
    He had no time to react. Kodia sprang, tossing the blanket over the alien in one motion, then spinning in mid-air and delivering a powerful kick with both feet between his upper shoulder blades. The sudden attack caught the pirate off guard and he went sprawling onto the bed in a tangle of arms and blanket. Kody didn't press her advantage. As the Talibian thrashed and cursed under the blanket, she dashed into the corridor. She closed the hatch and locked it by means of the key pad on the wall nearby. The hatch was flimsy, and she knew it wouldn't hold the muscular alien long, but it would buy her a few minutes. She hurried down the corridor toward the bridge.
    The Cebian was smarter that his compatriot. It'd be a challenge to overcome him. Kodia stopped at the entrance to the bridge and peered inside. She could see the Cebian at the helm. He was busy adjusting the climate controls – evidently dissatisfied with the ship's temperature. This was good. He was distracted. She glanced past him at the rack on the far wall where her holster and pulse gun hung. It'd be tough to reach without being seen. Cebians were strong and fast. If he spotted her, he could reduce her to ashes with his blaster before she even reached the rack.
    Kody suddenly felt weak and wobbly. Her exertions were catching up with her. She leaned against the door frame and tried to steady herself. She realized the gag was still locked in her mouth. She reached up and, with some effort, managed to pry it loose and toss it away. She breathed heavily. Gradually, the weak spell ebbed. As she rested, she heard the Talibian pounding on the hatch to her cabin and shouting curses. She hoped the muffled sounds didn't reach the Cebian's ears. She leaned around the door frame and checked. The lizard man was on his feet, but obviously hadn't heard the noise. He was tinkering with the lighting array, trying to increase the illumination in the ship. Cebians were a desert people, accustomed to heat and bright sun, and disliked cool, dark places.
    Kodia knew the Talibian would keep pounding, however, until either the Cebian heard, or the hatch gave way. She hadn't much time to act. With effort, she hoisted herself up and fixed her mind on her goal. The cool temperature of the ship, she knew, would slow the reflexes of the cold-blooded Cebian. It'd take time for the temperature to rise, even with new settings – which gave her a fighting chance. She focused on the gun rack. It was about four meters from her, and there were no places to hide along the way. She'd be in the open the whole time, a dangerous position. Still, there was no other way. She had to have her side-arm.
    She watched the Cebian as he twisted knobs and flipped switches on the helm, muttering to himself as he did so. When she was sure he was properly distracted, Kody took her shot. She sprang like a deer and covered the four meters to the gun-rack in less than two seconds. While the Cebian still tinkered with the humidity filters, Kodia took down the white belt and holster and quietly buckled it on. When she unsnapped the strap that held the pulse gun in place, the sound alerted the pirate, and he spun around, instinctively reaching for his deadly plasma blaster. But he wasn't fast enough. Kody whipped out her magnetic pulse gun and squeezed the trigger, firing off a level-4 pulse blast that struck the shocked pirate right in the forehead. His head snapped back like a whip, his glassy eyes crossed, and he crumpled to the deck like an empty pair of pants. For Kodia, it was a very satisfying sight.
    “One down, one to go!” she told herself.
    Just then, Kody heard the metal hatch of her cabin splitting and knew the Talibian had finally managed to pound his way out. She strode calmly back into the corridor and leaned in the doorway between it and the bridge. She adjusted the setting on her pulse gun up to level-5 and waited. The powerful, four-armed alien was wrenching open the hatch, grunting and swearing in his rage.
    “Where are you, you damn skinny lizard?” he growled angrily “Are you as deaf as you are ugly?” Finally, he squeezed out of the ruined hatch, and thundered down the corridor toward the bridge. He stopped cold when he found Kodia awaiting him in the doorway, a smile stretched across her pretty face.
    “Surprise.” she purred silkily as she leveled the pulse gun at the Talibian's groin. His eyes bulged as the red bulb on the end of the gun lit up. An instant later, the alien was hit in the crotch by a leather-hard cannonball of magnetic force, which took his feet out from under him, spun him twice, and sent him crashing to the deck with a squeal of agony. Kody grinned. “Bet that'll cool your libido.” she observed. She spun her pulse gun old-west style and holstered it, then sauntered over and gave the limp Talibian a swift kick. Like his compatriot on the bridge, he was out cold. Satisfied, she then hurried down to the hold to free the pirates' other prisoner. It had been a horrid ordeal, and it wasn't over yet, Kodia realized. The two lackeys were out of the running, but the vile mastermind of the business was still very much at large.
    When she reached the hold, Kody took a pry-bar from the tool cabinet and went to work on the metal drum containing the Dresdian boy. With the lid soon off, she found him trussed and gagged, as she had been, and looking very pale and weak. With considerable effort, Kodia turned the drum over, then pulled Zuud free of it. In a few moments, she had him free of his bonds and had revived him from unconsciousness. He peered weakly up at the Bruinian woman as she cradled him gently.
    “Don't try to talk.” Kodia commanded. “You're dehydrated. I'll get you some water, then fix you a mineral bath to restore you.” Zuud nodded slightly, and Kody laid him carefully on the deck. A few moments later, she was back with a cup of water. She lifted Zuud's head and helped him to drink. Once his strength had returned enough to stand, Kodia helped him up and took him the the ship's wash facilities, where the promised mineral bath was waiting. She helped him disrobe and to get into the water. After only a few minutes in the bath, Zuud's strength returned, and he seemed embarrassed.
    “What's wrong?” Kody asked.
    “I'm not used to being bathed like a child.” he admitted.
    Kodia smiled. “I'm the mother,” she pointed out. “I've given many baths.”
    “I'm not a baby!” Zuud protested.
    “It'll be our secret.” Kody replied, tweaking his chin mischievously. She stood. “Now, I'll leave you to it. I have a pair of pirates to tie up and lock in the hold.”
    “How did you manage to take those two down?” Zuud asked, clearly awed. “They were the hardest of the hard.”
    Kody winked at him. “Girl power.” she teased, then turned and left the wash room.
    As Kodia closed the door, Zuud went on with his bath, a little cowed. He hadn't planned to cooperate with this little, alien woman – his loyalty was to the fringe pirates, for all their myriad flaws. But, he'd seen how committed these buccaneers were in the last few days. They'd sell-out in a second for the right price, and didn't give a damn about loyalty. They were as bad as Gluut and his ruthless ilk. Zuud thought hard as he dried off and dressed. Kodia had rescued him and treated him kindly, almost like a mother. He barely remembered his own mother. Affection was a longed for, but seldom received luxury among his people, and for him especially. By the time his clothes were on, he'd decided to cooperate fully with his savior. At last, he had the chance to do something that might actually help his people.
    A short time later, Zuud met Kody on the bridge of the Prima cruiser. She'd just come from the hold. “Well,” she said, rubbing her paws together, “that takes care of the pirates. They're both snuggly tied up in the hold, ready for transport to the prison complex on Galomus Minor.”
    Zuud smiled at her. “You are some lady.” He said admiringly.
    “And don't you forget it.” Kodia replied, only half kidding.
    Zuud grew suddenly dark. “And now, there is Gluut.” he brooded. “What plans do you have for him?”
    Kody looked solemnly at Zuud. “None.” she said.
    Zuud's brows knitted. “None?” he spurted in disbelief. “After all this, you plan to let him off ?”
    Kodia's smile was sympathetic. “Sit down, Zuud.” she said gently.
    After a tense moment, the Dresdian obeyed.
    Kody seated herself across from him, took his webbed hand, and looked steadily into his large eyes. “Some problems,” she began, “one, or two people can solve alone – such as those two hoodlums in the hold. Other problems are too big for for one, or even a thousand people to handle. They require the mass action of all, or most of the people. Now Gluut may have acted independently of the UBTC, but the Consortium would back him if he were arrested, especially on the flimsy evidence I have. He'd be free in a week, and stronger than ever.”
    Zuud's face was twisted with rage and bitter disappointment. He couldn't stop the tears leaking from his glassy eyes. “Then, he'll get away with it!” he snarled.
    Kodia rubbed Zuud's hand softly. “Maybe,” she said as kindly as she could. “But. It doesn't mean we won't bring evidence to Judge Darmu on Tarsis. He's honest and he'll listen. He's ruled against the UBTC before, and I think he can help now.”
    Zuud wiped his eyes, obviously unconsoled. “It's damned unfair!” he cursed.
    “Life isn't fair.” Kody said. “But, we must make the best of it as it is, and work to make it better.”
    “But – the UBTC – they're so powerful.” Zuud intoned hopelessly.
    “The Oligarchs on my home world were powerful, too.” Kodia observed. “They controlled politics, the military, the police – everything. Yet, in the end, the will of the people couldn't be oppressed. Eventually, the UBTC will go too far, and the people will put them down. Permanently. But, today, we'll just have to settle for every small victory we can get.”
    “I guess you're right.” Zuud admitted. He looked suspiciously at her. “You seem to be right an awful lot.”
    “Of course,” Kodia said brightly. “I'm a woman.”
    Zuud laughed. “Very funny!” Then, he looked more serious. “Well, what now?” he asked.
    Kody stood up. “First, we drop off the two goons at Galomus Minor, then it's on to Tarsis and Judge Darmu.” She whipped around cheerfully and seated herself at the helm. After punching in the coordinates, she turned her bright eyes back on Zuud. “Say,” she chirped, “how would you like to pilot a Prima cruiser?”
    Zuud's eyes lit up. “Seriously?” he asked. “You'd let me?”
    Kodia flashed him a brilliant smile. “Sure I would.” she said. “Hang the regulations.”
    Zuud let himself smile broadly for the first time in ages as he eagerly seated himself beside Kody at the helm of the Prima cruiser. He buckled his safety harness, then glanced at his beautiful companion. “Ready!” he said excitedly.
    “Fine.” Kodia said, then tapped in the last flight coordinates, and switched the helm controls over to her young friend. “She's all yours.” she told Zuud. “Punch it!”
    Zuud flipped the toggle, activating the magna-thrusters and felt the pull of force as the coil engaged. After a rapid humming build up, they were off with a sudden boom, streaking through space at light speed, first to Galomus Minor, then to Tarsis, then to who knew where. Perhaps, Zuud hoped, to freedom.


Share This Page