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Printed from https://www.Writing.Com/view/1752727
by yacolt
Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Romance/Love · #1752727
He will risk his life for money. But will he risk it for love?
Pluto’s Rock



         The bottom-shelf liquor bit at Jymile’s mouth and its harsh taste blistered his tongue with unpleasant sensations as the liquid carved a path to his stomach. He avoided the drink’s aroma and took hurried gulps to absorb the fluid into his body as fast as possible.

          Jymile fumbled around looking for somewhere to stand his pool stick. A little table with holes for his stick would be nice. At the Star-Jumper, where he usually hustled pool, the tables were in rows and management had put a low bench with holes between the tables. However, here at Rosie’s there wasn’t anywhere to stand his stick, so he carried it with him to the bar.

          He watched from his side of the bar’s slab of real earth mahogany as the bartender reached down and took a bottle from the bottom shelf, at least at the Star-Jumper he could afford higher up on the shelf. Over a hundred years ago Rosie’s dance hall had been one of the first buildings constructed on Pluto’s Station and it had become tourist must, so everything was over-priced. And, while bottom-shelf liquor did taste bad, it had the alcohol he needed.

          He’d been on Pluto’s hollowed out asteroid for seven long months and he was beginning to face up to the fact that he would never leave. His ship was in hock at its mooring, and until he paid the docking fee, they wouldn’t even let him aboard. He had a ton of IOU’s out there. Some were from friends, but most were from people that wanted their money and were willing to bust him up as an example if he didn’t have it.

          If I only had a paying client going somewhere like Alpha Centauri, the money would pay the docking fees. Maybe I could stop and see Linda, she’s on Neptune’s Station, and I could go by there on the way to the Star Lane for the hyperspace jump to Alpha Centauri. If I could only get off this rock and see her. But it will never happen. Lugar wants me dead and I’ll never be able to satisfy Lugar with money. Even if I had a client, I can’t leave and see Linda. Pluto’s Rock is my only sanctuary.

         Jymile slid a five Mark to the bartender and poured the residue from his last drink into his new one. With a big gulp he empted half his glass, hoping his blistered tongue would find the drink more tolerable.

         He left his liquor on the mahogany slab and picked up his stick. After taking a quick glance around to see if anyone was watching, he struck the cue ball. The cue neatly sliced the five’s edge and dropped Jymile’s target into the side pocket. The cue stopped precisely, about ten centimeters away, in line for the six ball.

          Stuck on a Goddamn rock!

          His cue ball hit the six. The six rolled slowly into the corner pocket. The white ball stopped dead as soon as it touched the six.

          If only that damn sticky thruster on my shuttle hadn’t forced me to jettison that load of stolen guidance chips I was smuggling into Mars.

         His cue hit the seven squarely and it went into its pocket with a solid thud.

         If I hadn’t taken that steep landing path when the thruster stuck, I could have avoided the crash. I had to jettison the cargo to keep my ship from burning up. Then the jettisoned cargo left a meteor trail leading Customs to where I came down.

         Jymile’s cue struck the eight ball. The ball took a fast diagonal path clear across the table to the far corner. Then the ball slowed near the pocket and when it dropped, the eight didn’t even touch the pocket sides.

         Then Lugar, that crazy inner-worlder who talked me into smuggling in the first place, started badmouthing me because I dumped the chips. But what could I do? With no thruster and over-weight, my shuttle would have turned into a fireball.

         The nine fell into its pocket and swirled around and around, before it went down.

         At my trial, the Mars prosecutor claimed the chips were counterfeited and I put people’s lives at risk with counterfeited guidance chips. That was a more serious crime then smuggling and charged me with the death penalty.

         The ten ball took a sharp blow from the cue. The collision sent the cue ricocheting across the green and it bounced from side rail before the ten ball even dropped into its pocket.

         My lame appointed Mars attorney assured me I probably wouldn’t get death and would only get life in prison. I had spent four months in a disgusting Mars cell waiting for trial. I already knew I would rather die in Mar’s carbon dioxide without a breather mask then spent the rest of my life in a Mars prison.

         Jymile hit the eleven ball hard. From the force of the impact the eleven rattled and bounced around in its pocket. He saw the ball hanging near the top of the hole before it fell down.

         The only thing that saved my ass was the president of Penrose Industries assuring the court the chips were genuine, since the numbers on the burned chips identified them as stolen from a Penrose warehouse on the Moon. Penrose didn’t come to save me, but only to testify that Penrose chips couldn’t be faked. I guess I was lucky only getting two years in prison, but that was bad enough.

         The cue ball took a sharp angle and sent the twelve hard to the end cushion. The twelve ball came off the rail fast and then slowed. It traveled down the long side of the table and dropped softly into the left corner pocket.

         That lying prosecutor knew the chips were genuine. It was for his own political gain the prosecutor played bulldog and tore apart my rabbit attorney. That is until the president of Penrose Industries got on the stand. Then the bulldog turned into a tinny toy Chihuahua and weakly barked one softball question to set up Penrose’s speech.

         Jymile stopped shooting. He straightened up and muttered under his breath, “That asshole prosecutor.”

         Then he bent down, lined up, and knocked the thirteen into its pocket. But his cue ball didn’t slow down after hitting its target. The ball kept on rolling and rolling leaving lots of green tabletop between his cue and the next ball.

         Jymile smiled looking at how far his ball had rolled. He liked sinking the long shots with lots of green. That’s how he made his money. The hustler knew the game wasn’t if he could beat the other guy. He could sink every shot. But that would make the mark wise and walk away before the big bet.

         At the Star-Jumper, or the Hydra-Nix, he never shot as he did here at Rosie’s. At the other bars he played the hustler’s game. Letting the mark win more and more, tricking him into thinking he was going to walk away ahead. Jymile knew that all he had to do is keep the mark around. The marks could never resist thinking they were going to win big on an impossible looking shot.

         As he played he would set the guy up. Leaving some long green shots. Making his ball come close, but miss. Then he would set up a shot with a lot of green. Stop the cue ball where it looked like there wasn’t any possible way to shoot around the other balls. Then it was easy to get the mark into a big side bet on whether Jymile could make the hard shot.

         The other player wasn’t making a bet on how well they could play. They knew they could never make the shot. The bet was could Jymile make the impossible shot. Jymile could always make the shot. He only had to play the mark along, keeping the mark at the table until the big bet. He just had to make sure no one knew how good he was.

         That’s why every month or so he would come to Rosie’s. Nobody played pool here and the antique table, with its oversized carved wood legs and nets for pockets, was mostly for show. Around here he could shoot without holding back. Run the table four or five times in a row.

         Taking its time, the cue rolled down the green sending the fourteen into its hole and the ball did what Jymile intended. The cue rolled to the table’s far edge, leaving an odd angle to the last ball on the far side.

         His eyes lined up the long green shot. Jymile’s cue would have to come off the rail and the fifteen he was putting in the corner pocket sat close to the end cushion. He would have to hit that sweet spot between the rail and the ball.

         There are times when the human brain works slower then its body. Using the body’s senses to perceive information about the outside world, the brain takes time to process the information before telling the body what to do.

         Looking at the end of the rail to gauge the distance Jymile saw a well-dressed man in an expensive suit standing and watching. Jymile never hustled pool at Rosie’s, and besides himself, he had never seen anyone use the table here.

         But Jymile’s brain still ran though the decisions. Is this obviously rich man a mark? Should he miss this shot and sucker him in? Maybe make the shot and call it luck. Maybe sucker the man in that way.

          Jymile’s arms started in motion before his brain realized the man in the suit was Rodger Penrose. The industrialist who had testified at his trial.

         Jymile’s startled brain, caught between decisions, scrambled the information it was sending to Jymile’s muscles. His arm shanked the cue stick and sent the ball over the cushioned rail onto the floor. Management had installed an island of carpet around the table to protect the floor’s real earth maple from events like this, so the cue only made a soft noise on the carpet and rolled against the bar’s mahogany wall.

          Jymile’s brain, still wasn’t ready to tell him what to do, so he just looked at the man, then at the white ball against the dark mahogany, and back at the man.

         The slender man in the perfect suit stuck out his hand. “I’m Roger Penrose, but I take it you already know that,” he said, looking down at the cue ball on the floor.

          “Yeah, well...I know. I’m Jymile…”

          “Yes, I was at your trial,” Rodger said smiling.

         “Yeah, thanks for testifying. I really...” Jymile’s words trailed off. He was stunned.

          What was Penrose, the rich inner-worlder, doing on Pluto’s Rock?

         “You don’t have to thank me. We did it because it would have been a public relations disaster if we let people have fears about Penrose chips.”

         Then Penrose added, “But I am glad it helped you.”

         “I got two years, but my attorney said if you hadn’t been there I would have gotten a lot more.”

         “I don’t know if it was me. The technicians showed the court the evidence.”

         “Your coming didn’t hurt.” Jymile smiled at the memory of the bulldog prosecutor turned Chihuahua.

         Penrose said, “Sometimes being from the inner-worlds has its benefits and having money doesn’t hurt either.”

         I can agree with that.

         “You really surprised me. We get tourists from the inner-planets, but they’re mostly old people or visitors whose great-grandfather helped hollow out the station’s asteroid frame,” Jymile paused briefly.

         “What the hell are you doing on Pluto’s Station? This is the most forsaken place in the whole Solar System!”

          Roger Penrose from earth on Pluto’s Station’s hollowed out hunk of rock? It didn’t make any sense.

         “Oh I don’t know about this being the most forsaken place in the Solar System. It doesn’t look too bad,” Penrose said, swinging his head. Penrose looked around at the large old dance hall, with its tall narrow widows that were arched at the top and divided into panes, and to the small stage on the other side of the dance floor.

         “Real earth wood dance floor. And look at those chandlers,” he said, pointing at the huge cut glass lights that hung from the high dusty ceiling on long chains. Halfway down from the ceiling the lights flared out in layers, looking something like big over-turned wedding cakes.

         “That’s real hand-cut glass, not done by robots, and the sparkle means it’s got to be high lead glass.”

         Jymile had been told before that the sparkle in the glass came from the high lead. And yes, it was real earth wood. A hundred years ago, when Pluto was on the other side of the Solar System, and they built the hyperspace Star Lane to Alpha Centauri, this place was special and a lot of money and time went into it.

         Hyperspace star-jumps are made far from the mass of the sun and Pluto’s orbit was ideal. The miners hollowed out a wayward iron-ore asteroid and used the iron to build the buoys on the Star Lane’s path.

         After they built the Star Lane, with the iron left over, they put up buildings and turned the mining tunnels into corridors and rooms for Pluto’s Station. They dragged the asteroid into orbit around Pluto and created a place where travelers could stay as they went to the other stars.

          But the Star Lane buoys are fixed in space and they do not orbit the Sun.

         However, orbits move and a century later Pluto was on the wrong side of the sun. Away from all the action and money to be made from the star-jumping ships.

          There is some other motive. Pluto’s Station had been the state of the art at one time. But the president of Penrose Industries making a positive appraisal of an old dusty dance hall suffering a century of neglect and a position on the edge of nowhere? Well, it was plain silly.

         Jymile eyed the man wondering what his real motives were and said, “A hundred years ago this place was nice. And maybe in another hundred years, when it gets back to the Star Lane, and a lot of money is spent fixing it up, it might make a nice classic hotel. But who will want to wait that long?”

          Rodger answered, “At Penrose industries we think of ourselves as long term investors. The company was started by my many times great-grandfather. We have been in business for over two hundred years and we will still be in business in another two hundred years.”

         Rodger Penrose paused, and then went on in his corporate voice. The one he used when selling to clients.

         “We can wait a hundred years. And in the meantime the asteroid will make a good company retreat. So yes, we are looking into buying the place.”

         ”You’re going to buy Pluto’s Rock?” Jymile said. With the voice he used when he heard bullshit and didn’t believe a word of what he was being told.

         There is no way Penrose came here to buy Pluto’s Rock!

         “There isn’t any reason in the whole Solar System that anyone would want to buy this rock. A rock on the edge of nowhere! If I could leave Pluto I’d be packing my bags right now.”

         “So if there was some reason for you to leave Pluto then you would do it?” Rodger asked.

          A little different tone in Rodger’s voice. The low sound of some kind of hustle.

         “Sure, if I could leave. I’d love to get off this rock.”

         ”But betting games is the only way I’ve got of making money.” Jymile gestured with his stick to the pool table, “Don’t suppose you’d like to shoot a game?”

         It wasn’t a real offer to play pool, but Jymile‘s first move in the real game.

         Penrose laughed and said, “I’ve seen you shoot. I wouldn’t play you for money.”

         Penrose glanced casually over to the table where he had left his briefcase. His voice turned serious, but he didn’t overplay his hand, “I do have a something that you might be interested in.”

         “Come over and take a look. See if you’re interested.”

         “I guess I could,” Jymile said.

         The reason this many-times billionaire has come to the edge of nowhere, pretending a real estate deal, is because he wants something from me. It had to be illegal. Anything legal Penrose could just buy openly.

          Jymile pulled out a chair and sat down. He looked at Rodger across the table in his expensive tailored suit. Wearing the suit like it was nothing because he had another hundred just like it at home. The man was born into money and he probably did have a hundred suits.

         But Jymile knew it was deeper then Rodger just had money. The way he sat in his suit said, ‘You can take this suit and everything I have and I will just earn it all back.’

         Be careful. There’s a lot of money to be made here, but this isn’t some hustle at the Hydra-Nix. The guy out-classes you, but he wants you for something. Play the game slow and cool. Keep a poker-face.

         Penrose opened his thin briefcase and took out a large brown computer tracked envelope, like the ones used by corporations or banks, and slid it over to Jymile.

          With his poker-face Jymile looked at the packet, didn’t touch it, and said, “Nice looking tracked envelope.”

         The envelope was a lustrous dark brown and Rodger had set it with the side that opens facing up. Jymile could see the silver computer tracking threads woven through the envelope’s paper, so he knew it had some kind of secure documents inside.

         The little metal tabs that went through the envelope’s flap were bent to hold the flap sealed. A cardboard grommet had a little string fastened and it wrapped around the metal tabs as an additional detail to keep the flap closed.

         Rodger’s move with the fancy tracking envelope. Keep the poker-face.

         ”Go ahead open it.” Rodger told him, looking for any sign in Jymile’s face.

         Jymile undid the string and bent the metal tabs up, reaching in he took out a few pages of documents stapled together. The iridized metal from computer tags glinted on the secure documents as he lifted the sheets up, one at a time, and let them fold open over the corners were the staples held them.

          The title to my ship. My bank loan papers. The computer coded balance sheet of my first loan, the balance sheet of the second loan I had to get to save my ship while I was in prison. The computer tags indicating all paid off in my name.

         Jymile’s poker-face didn’t blink. He closed the papers up and set them on top of the chocolate colored envelope. He didn’t push the envelope back to Rodger, but he did move it a centimeter or so indicating that he had read the papers.

         “It says my ship is paid off. I don’t know what that means or what you want.”

         “There’s more inside,” Rodger said, leading Jymile on.

         Jymile took the papers off the brown packet. He turned it upside down and a plain white envelope slid out on the table. The white envelope was fat and looked unevenly filled with something.

         He tore off one end of the white envelope and dumped out the fingernail chips he had recorded for the loan sharks and the small slips of paper IOU’s he had signed for his friends. He looked at some of the paper slips and saw handwritten notes on them saying ‘thanks’ or ‘good luck.’

         His poker-face was calm, “I’d have to check my records to be sure, but I’m guessing all my IOU’S are paid.”

         But inside of Jymile’s poker-face was a small hope of dawn. Maybe he could get off this rock and have a real life. Without a loan on his ship he could get enough to pay for the docking fees and he still had enough fuel to get to the Star Lane. Maybe pick up a client there. But this guy wanted him to do something and Penrose was putting money up front, betting it would happen. Jymile didn’t like the implications of that.

         I can never leave here anyway. Penrose had money, but money will never satisfy Lugar. Lugar wants to kill me. And the inner-worlder living on Katy’s Place has plenty of money. I know Lugar and he is the kind of guy that, if he has some reason to want you dead, your death means more to him then money. And there were plenty of crazies living in the outer-wheel of Katy’s space station that will kill for Lugar. The sanctuary on Pluto’s Rock is the only reason I’m alive now. If I leave here, I won’t last a week.

         Decades after the Star Lane was built, and Pluto was drifting away from the Star Lane, its leaders decided to give some a safe haven. There were so many different laws on so many planets, moons, and space stations; no one could comprehend them all. So if you broke one somewhere, and if Pluto would take you, there was sanctuary on its rock.

         Pluto had a strict screening policy and there were no weapons of any kind. You couldn’t get a pocketknife on the station. Sure maybe someone could use a steak knife or make something, but the screening and mental evaluation of the visitors seemed to work. No one could remember anyone ever being attacked on the station.

         During his testimony on Mars it had come out that the Mars tax on the chips was fifteen times the wholesale cost. When the people of Mars found out their tax was fifteen times, well things went crazy. And to some he was a hero for bringing out that fact. Jymile guessed his testimony bringing out the exorbitant tax had something to do with the fancy dressed lawyers of Mars getting him from his cell a week early and escorting him and his ship to Pluto.

         Pluto’s Rock was the only place in the whole Solar System Lugar can’t get to me. I can never leave this rock.

         “I think we found all the IOU’s,” Rodger said, then he paused and continued,” But what you really want to know is why I paid for your ship and your IOU’s.”

         “I would like that,” Jymile said, keeping the poker-face.

         “I have a friend and tomorrow I want you to meet with us and see if you would do something for him,” Rodger said casually, hiding the fact the meeting is all he wanted. He knew if Jymile agreed to come to the meeting, he wouldn’t be able to refuse their offer.

         “You came to Pluto and pretended to buy its Station just to find someone to do something for your friend?” Jymile said.

          I know your coming here must be on all the planets broadcast news.

         ”Seems like a pretty big effort for just a favor anyone can do,” Jymile said, not dismissing the meeting outright.

         Jymile felt his intuition stir, sensing danger. His ship’s title was cleanly in his name and that couldn’t be undone, a big win with little effort. There was something familiar about an easy win, but it wouldn’t hurt to hang around, stay in the game, and see about another win.

         Jymile overruled his intuition, stayed in the game, and only added a touch of sarcasm to his words for effect. A small move he played against Rodger’s understated big move.

         “Not just anyone can do this.” Rodger replied evenly.

         Rodger didn’t smile, but he had lots of experience in getting what he wanted. Jymile’s answer, with its small touch of sarcasm, told him Jymile would agree to meet with his friend and they would get what they wanted.

         It couldn’t be my piloting skills. I’m good, but Penrose can buy even better.

         “Must be dangerous.”

         “Yes it is.”

         It couldn’t just be dangerous. Money will get people to take on danger.

         “Must be illegal.”

         “Yes it is.”

         I knew it was coming. The other foot that had to come down. Both dangerous and illegal.

         “And you what me… to do what?”

         “Set with my friend this time tomorrow and discuss the favor,” Penrose asked the simple request, knowing Jymile would be there.

         “Show up or not, as of now we’re settled up. If you do show up and take the job we’ll come to an additional amount of payment.”

         Then Penrose smiled and added,” By contract we couldn’t say anything about the taxes Mars required us put in our wholesale price. After your testimony Mars had to cut their taxes and I sell three times what I used to sell. A single quarter’s extra profit is ten times what I paid for your ship. You can consider your ship thanks for that.”

         Rodger Penrose stood up and taking his thin briefcase, he started for the door.

         Jymile stood up also. It cut into his advantage, letting Penrose know he couldn’t leave the station, but he had to ask, “I’m guessing the favor you want me to do for your friend off of Pluto’s Rock?”

         “Yes it is.”

         “You know I can’t leave Pluto’s Station. There are reasons I’m in sanctuary here.”

          Penrose had been waiting for Jymile to bring it up and he said, “I think you can leave.”

         Penrose sat his briefcase back down. He opened the jacket of his expensive suit, and reached in and took out a sheet of iridized-tracking paper that was folded over and sealed. He handed it to Jymile.

         When Jymile took the paper and saw the scrawled handwriting on the outside, addressed with his name, he knew the industrialist was right. He could leave Pluto. The handwriting was Lugar’s.


*******


         Jymile walked down the passage to his room. The miners had found a good vein of ore and the tunnel was wide and tall. After mining it, they had plastered the walls with a faro-cement so the walls wouldn’t crumble. The organic looking plaster covering the rock made it feel like he was walking down the petrified arteries of some massive alien beast.

         Pluto’s station was unique in its method of artificial gravity. The other stations were huge spinning wheels using centrifugal force to mimic gravity. But on Pluto’s Station, in the hey-day of the century of we-can-do-anything, the designers had built an artificial gravity generator.

         The generator produced gravitons directly, creating artificial gravity and as you got closer to the center of the hollow asteroid, where the machine sat, the gravity got stronger. The method was never practical, since the field generator gulped a lot of anti-matter. And Pluto was the only station that made its gravity this way.

          Jymile liked going down the tunnel and feeling his weight getting heaver the closer he got to his room. But most people don’t like gravity stronger then one, so the rent was cheaper in the belly of the asteroid. He liked that too; Pluto did take in fugitives, but everyone had to pay their costs. He didn’t have to pay for his ship’s docking or his room every month, but the bill still added up.

         He had already read Lugar’s letter. It was full of phony apologies and weak explanations. All fake bullshit and he knew it. And he knew Lugar knew he knew, or however it is phrased when everyone knows it’s all crap. But Penrose had told him he could leave the station, and he knew that was right. They had gotten to Lugar somehow and now Lugar had a chain.

         At his door he looked for this tinny scrap of paper he had put at the doorsill. He always carefully lined it up with a nearly invisible scratch on the door. Pluto’s station didn’t have any attacks in recent memory, but he didn’t take any chances. The wind from opening the door would blow the paper around and he would know if anyone had been in his room. The scrap lay right where he left it, so he knew no one had been in his room.

         That is until he went in and saw the gun and holster on his dresser that someone had put in his room. He picked up the holster with the gun in it and took the gun out of its sheave wondering why someone put a gun in his room.

         He had seen pictures of guns like this, but he had never seen one for real. The gun fired high energy gamma rays and was called a Burster, after gamma ray bursts, the most powerful light flashes in the universe.

         He held the gun in his hand and was amazed how perfect it felt. The weight was perfect, the gun perfectly balanced. Everything about it was perfect. Of course, it could never be fired on the station. It would burn a hole through the entire rock.

         Who did this? How did they even get the most powerful hand weapon ever made on the station and into his room? Well the ‘who’ part was pretty easy to guess, but how he would never know.

         The holster was of an unusual design that he couldn’t place. Jymile turned it around in his hands marveling how soft the thin strong material was. The holster was a deep purple, almost black color. When he touched it he felt his hands tingle, like the holster was a living thing or had some tiny spines or chemicals that reacted with his skin. He set it back on the dresser, not sure if he liked the way it felt.

         Putting the holster back he saw the manuals for the gun and the holster next to another envelope. He opened the holster’s manual and then he knew why the holster had such a funny feel. He’d heard of bio-holsters, but he hadn’t even seen a picture of one.

         He picked up the holster, not minding the tingling anymore. Strapping it on he put the gun in and practiced a quick draw. As soon as his hand touched the gun, the nano-hairs he had felt tingling his skin, took over the muscles in his arm. The gun came out faster then he could have ever done on his own. He did a couple of dozen fast draws before he could stop himself. He liked the feeling of drawing so fast.

         Jymile took off the bio-holster and put the gun under his pillow. Not that he need the protection, or could even fire the gun on the station. It was perfect and he wanted it nearby.

         He knew from the way the envelope bent there were Marks in it. Tearing it open he counted the stack of 10,000 Mark bills. 350,000 Marks. Well, the docking fee and his room were taken care of.

         He started thinking now that things had changed so much, maybe he could get out of here and see Linda. With no bills and Lugar chained he could actually leave this place.

         Linda and he had been having trouble because of his big ship payments and how hard it was to be a freelance pilot. She didn’t come right out and say, “Sell the ship and get a regular pilot job hauling cargo somewhere.” But he sometimes felt that’s what she wanted him to do.

         Before his time in jail he hadn’t really faced up to how much he loved her. All his life he managed to hustle enough to get by. Sometimes, if he had too, he did the regular cargo runs, but usually he managed by with some freelance pilot job.

         Before jail he hadn’t appreciated how hard the stress and uncertainty was on Linda. In the long hours of confinement he had plenty of time to realize that, although it was his stress, it still unfairly affected her.

         If I ever have a chance with her again, I swear, I’m not going to let anything in my life, interfere with our relationship.

         She was on Neptune’s Station, maybe he should send her a message that he might come by, but he felt strong warning.

          I better find what Rodger wants and what the end result will be before I call Linda with any news.

         He would wait and call her tomorrow after he met with Rodger. He’d make sure not to let anything interfere with Linda and his relationship. He could turn down the job, if it was too dangerous or if he thought it would send him back to prison. He was home free. With his ship back and the 350,000 Marks, he was good to go.

         Still, Rodger had gotten Lugar off his back, gave him his ship and the money to undock it. He wondered how much more he would give for the job. He had to see how much that was. He would meet with Rodger and his friend. He could turn down any possible number they could offer; especially now with the money he already had. He didn’t have to do what they wanted, but inside he wondered why he had gotten so much already.

         Sure, the explanation about selling more chips so his ship was no big deal, sounded reasonable. But the game wasn’t played by discarding cards without a reason. Penrose gave a face card letting Jymile have his ship. That warned him Rodger was confident about getting him to do what Rodger wanted.

         Learn from the prison time. Take what I have, it’s a lot already. Getting involved with Lugar almost cost me my life and I lost Linda by getting involved with things illegal.

         He knew his thoughts were right, but he couldn’t worry about old reasons and motives right now. They were all empty past. He had what he needed and that was a fact. He wasn’t going to call Linda yet and it was too early to sleep. He smiled getting the gun out from under his pillow. Jymile put on the bio-holster and started practicing the feel good quick draw.


*******


         Jymile sat across the table from Rodger, who was looking comfortable in another expensive suit. His friend had a wide face with a broad forehead where a wave of blond hair stuck out. The hair was plastered down, but it looked like it was trying to get back up. And though the man was setting down Jymile could tell the blond was a big man. Although the man had the look of money, he didn’t wear it comfortable the way Penrose did.

         “Thanks for the extra cash and the really nice gift. It’s amazing. I really like it,” Jymile said, knowing it wasn’t wise to actually describe the gun or its bio-holster.

         “My idea, thought you might like it,” Penrose said smiling.

         Then he introduced his friend, “This is Dan. He might be your client if you take the job.”

         The big man shoved his hand across the table. When they shook hands, Jymile noticed the man had rather slender fingers even though they were on a big palm. The grip was knowingly strong and when Jymile retrieved his hand he put it under the table and rubbed it on his leg. His hand tingled from the shake.

         “Said I’d be here so here I am.” Jymile hurried on, “All I know is that what you want is illegal and dangerous. Since you’ve paid me a lot to show up, I’m guessing it’s very dangerous and very illegal.”

          Rodger smiled and said, “Very much of both.”

         From inside his tailored suit Rodger took out a 3 by 4 card. Even before Rodger put the card on the table Jymile could see the Uniform Standard Coordinates for some location in space. Rodger set the paper down with the printing up.

         Normally Jymile would have to visualize where the coordinates were, but he knew these coordinates.

         “Amenta! That’s the planet of death!”

         The expressions in Jymile’s words were as if he shouted them, but his voice said the words quietly. He quickly looked around the room. It was empty and even the bartender was in the back doing something.

         He knew Pluto’s Station had a strict policy against listening devices and this room was as safe as anywhere in the Solar System. But he was still afraid.

          Jymile said, “We can get the death penalty for even talking about going to Amenta. We can be executed just for having this conversation.”

          Then he whispered suspiciously, “What is this? Are you guys trying to set me up? I’m not going to take the death penalty because you’re entrapping me.”

         Rodger Penrose laughed out loud, obviously not concerned about being overheard.

         “Come on Jymile we gave you 35 million to come here and talk. Don’t you think that would be evidence of a set up?” He paused a little then added. “At a trial it would be entrapment.”

         Dan gestured. He lifted up his big hands a few centimeters and spread them apart. “That’s even if there were a trial.”

          Dan’s words gave the game a risky bend. Jymile now understood why his room had been went through and the gun left. Why his little trick with the scrap was noticed and the scrap perfectly replaced. These guys were showing him they knew what they were doing. The message was clear, no blackmail or cheating. He would not live to escape.

          I should have been satisfied with my ship and not entertained anything else. Stay calm, they want you for a job, but they can’t force you against your will. Point that out. Use your poker-face.

         “Ok. You’re on the level. You said I could take the job or not. But why me?”

          Probably know that answer, but still I’d like to hear it.

         “You have gone to Amenta twice and lived both times. No one else has ever come back from the planet.”

         “Dan wants to go to Amenta and we feel you’re his best hope of getting there and back.”

         The answer was blunt and what exactly Jymile expected it would be.

          “Sure, I made back,” Jymile answered, just as frankly.

         “But you guys have to know that nobody who went to Amenta with me came back. Their bodies are still on the planet,” Jymile said.

         “ We know that. Tell us what happened.”

         “Not something ever I talk about,” Jymile hesitated.

         But I have to continue. They had given me a lot of money to come and talk to them. Roger nodded encouragingly.

          Jymile started slowly, “The first time I saw Amenta it was an unnamed planet that we came across while doing a space survey in that region.”

         “Everyone onboard was excited about finding a planet around the size of earth. The planet had a large moon and a thick atmosphere, although Amenta’s atmosphere is pure nitrogen.”

         “Our probe photography showed an ancient shoreline, but now the planet had no water at all. The most exciting thing the probes found was the ruins of the many cities that had been built above the dry shoreline.” Jymile paused and looked across the table knowing, although he didn’t want to, they wanted him to go on.

         “Our deep penetrating radar-probes reveled large underground caverns and, back when Amenta still had oceans, the entrances would have been underwater. The shallow radar showed the entire planet’s surface, including the dry sea beds, was honeycombed with tunnels and small caves about 10 to 15 meters underground.”

         Jymile slowed and he stared off at the wall, his memory struggling with the horrible things that happen on Amenta.

         “I was a hot shot pilot, maybe one of the better ones. They had me flying a small scout-ship with two surveyors, Gandal and Jaren. Coming with us were two other ships. A medium landing-craft with 32 aboard and it put down about 30 klicks away in this flat opening. A smaller eight man crew-ship landed about a klick from the target building in the Graven City that Gandal and Jaren were to investigate.”

         “The Graven City,” Dan whispered “The city that looks like a mask,” saying the words reverently, like he had studied the place.

         Jymile looked up at Dan, So he does know something about Amenta.

          Command decided this peculiar bombed out building was important. The ruins were at a bend where the main road came into the city. The photos showed many interesting artifacts about 10 cementers square in one of the rooms. They thought this ruin was a library or government hall of some kind and the objects were records or computer cores.”

         “I wanted to land right next to the artifacts. I knew I could set the craft down inside this small area within the wrecked walls, but command felt it was too dangerous. Their plan was for me to land outside the broken walls and Gandal would take one of those six legged go-anywhere cargo carriers through the broken wall.”

         You know what those things look like?” Jymile asked looking up at his audience. They nodded yes, they did know.

         Why am I asking? It’s a dumb question and I really want to stop talking. But I have to go on.

         “The other craft that came with us landed about the same time as we did. The medium landing-craft started setting up an investigating camp and the eight man crew-craft landed near by for backup. At the time it sounded pretty needless since the probes hadn’t found even a single microbe of life on the whole planet.”

         “I set down where I was told. Gandal and Jaren pulled on their breather masks and set out with Gandal guiding the walker with its control cord. I lifted off to get some shots with the high resolution camera mounted under the ship.”

         ”I flew over them slow while they climbed through the rubble, when they were inside the walls they started loading the walker. I took a shallow curve and came back over. Then I widened out for a large panoramic view to give scale to the whole scene. I was about two kilometers away when I saw movement on the ground.”

         Jymile pulled short. His memory took his breath and held it, before letting it go.

          When he could breathe Jymile said. “I swung low over the movement and it was a Goddamn military robot! It was about five meters tall and I could see it had what looked like lasers for arms and it was headed straight to where Gandal and Jaren were. I started broadcasting what I saw on all the channels and sped back to the surveyors.”

         ”But when I got to them I saw flashes of laser light coming from a different, but identical robot. I used the ships laser-cannon and took it out, circling tight around and landing in the spot where I wanted to land originally, as close to Gandal and Jaren as I could.”

         “Jaren lay headless from about here up,” Jymile put his hand to his chest about six cementers below his shoulders, “he was obviously dead.” Gandal had his left arm missing, but he still had the walker’s cord in his right hand. I ran out and tried to get Gandal back to the ship, but he wouldn’t let go of the walker control cord.

         “He kept saying, ’Put the walker in the ship. Put the walker in the ship!’”

         “I lifted Gandal up and put him in the walker. I took the control cord and used the walker to carry him back to the scout-ship and get him into the ship’s cargo net. He was still yelling, ’Put the walker in the ship.’”

         “I pulled the walker through the cargo doors and jammed them shut. I went over the back of the pilot’s seat and hit the controls out of there. I had a clear shot at a couple more military robots, but I didn’t take the time to fire. I was thinking about the eight man crew-ship near by, since I had their chancel on and I didn’t hear anything.”

         Jymile’s words trailed from soft to silent, his voice going quiet as his emotions bled down from the pressure of reliving the vivid events.

         Rodger and Dan were quiet too. Nobody said anything; they let the silence tick by.

         Finally Jymile said, “I flew over our back-up crew and I saw all eight men dead, laying sprawled on the ground. I took two machines out at the end of the pass and came back over them the other way. I tried to see if there might be someone alive, but there was no one.”

         “I could hear fighting on the channel from other the landing craft, so I hit it as fast as possible and I had hope when I saw a few laser shots from our guys. I came in blasting, wheeling around; I must have taken six or seven down. But there were too many.”

         ”I could see this pile of machines where the guys had brought down several dozen, and the robots had fallen on top of each other. But there were more robots coming over the piles.”

         “But…” Jymile struggled looking straight at his companions.

          Inside their hearts the men felt Jymile’s hopelessness, they saw it in his face and understood his sadness when he continued.

          “It couldn’t be done. I couldn’t save anyone. There was no more fire from inside the circle of fallen robots.”

         “I guess I went a little crazy, firing to take out as many as I could. Didn’t really make any sense. There wasn’t anyone left alive to save and I was starting to get a lot of ground-fire. The machines had no one left to kill on the ground and they were getting the idea I was firing from above.”

         “Gandal yelling, ‘Save the walker! Save the walker!’ Command was coming through my headset telling me to get out. I guess it was good all around that I came to my senses and made it back to the main ship.”

         Dan asked,” Gandal, I guess he didn’t make it.”

         “Gandal died before I got back, but the doctor said he would have died no matter what. The stuff in the walker was pretty important, so I guess it was good I got back…” Jymile paused, his words almost stopping.

         “You know they gave me the Service Cross Medal for that. Never told anyone I got it.” Jymile gazed blankly at the men. He didn’t see them. His eyes only saw the memories of his dead friends.

         “I guess except for now.”

         Dan whistled softly under his breath, impressed. The Service Cross was the highest medal that could be given.

         Everyone was silent. The catastrophe floated in the heavy air, drifting while Amenta’s grave events sank in.

         Finally Rodger asked. “What did they find out about the stuff in the walker?”

         “I don’t know everything. I think most of the stuff was their history and it shed a lot on their war. Plus some of the records were writings from their books. A lot of technical manuals and things.”

         “Most of the stuff I heard about had to do with the war that destroyed Amenta. The war’s history, things like that. I never did see much reasoning behind the conflict, considering it killed every living thing on their planet.”

         “The deep underground caverns were hiding places built by one side and they hid the entrances underwater. However, the other side boiled the oceans into space, uncovering the openings. Then the first side retaliated by driving off the planet’s oxygen. Both sides died. No life could survive without water and inert nitrogen for air. The war took every living cell from their planet.

          Silence come over the room and no one could say anything; all their thoughts struggled trying to find a reason important and strong enough to take all life from a planet.

          Pushing their thoughts away from the useless death of Amenta, Rodger asked, “How advanced was their technology? What about space travel, did they have that technology?”

         Jymile thought a moment and then he said, “Their planet had been dead for thousands of years. However, their military machines functioned just fine. Part of that may be the preserving effects of the inert nitrogen atmosphere. The robots run on atomic power and their technology did seem to be very good at building small atomic powered reactors.”

         ”They sent their weapons into suborbital paths to bomb other cities and definitely could have traveled to their moon. But they never did. For some reason they didn’t use nuclear bombs, there wasn’t any evidence of that. They had very powerful chemical explosives and they had anti-matter weapons.”

         “We stayed for a month looking over the records and sending down new probes. But the robots had learned and blasted even our lifeless probes. We couldn’t even use unmanned craft to retrieve the bodies of our fallen.”

         ”Their books, even on neutral subjects like maintenance manuals, was filled with hatred and violence. Their fiction overflowed with loathing and bloodshed, and their poetry dripped with venom. We destroyed the records of all the translations, and the computer cores and records that I brought back in the walker were sent crashing back into Amenta.”

         Jymile added thoughtfully, “I think this is one of the reasons it is forbidden to go the planet. Their technology has no advancement and the fear that Amenta’s words will pollute our culture is real.”

         “No one wanted to bring anything from a planet that would not be satisfied until it destroyed every cell of its life.”

         But Amenta is not satisfied even now. The planet is still calling for life to come to it and die.


*******



         After a long pause Jymile said, looking at them with a small smile, “Want you really want me to tell you about is when I went to Amenta on the thrill-hunt for its killer robots. The second time I went to Amenta; when I took the hunters seeking the most dangerous hunt-of-all.”

         I know why Dan wants a guide to a forbidden planet filled with deadly robots.

         “It was a few years after I left the space survey and I was doing the cargo run from the asteroid belt up to the moon Callisto. At the time it wasn’t against the law to go Amenta, but not many people had heard of Amenta and its robots. To the few that had the planet was more like a myth or legend.”

         “I’m sure you’ve heard of Katy’s Place. But I don’t know if you guys are the type that would frequent a two kilometer spinning wheel with a Solar System wide reputation as a sleazy pleasure palace. Maybe if you were slumming it,” Jymile said, looking at the men whose faces had broken out into wide grins.

         “Ok, so you know the place. In the belt there aren’t many places to go and I used to stay at Katy’s Place when they made me take the required three week stop-work. I had this dream of having my own ship and I worked a lot of over-hours for my dream.”

         “I didn’t want to spend money to go somewhere nice. I knew a cheep place to stay there and a bar where I could hustle pool and drink whisky.”

          Jymile looked at the men with a tinny sad smile, “I’m going to warn you how this story turns out. A lot of death, exactly like the first time.”

         “But those soldiers were my friends and comrades. These guys I met on Katy’s Place, they were just a bunch of rich outer-worlders that found a way to get to me and use me.”

         “It was just after earth banned outer-worlders from landing on their planet. There were about five or six of these outer-worlders and they had paid a lot to take a big-game trophy-hunt at some game preserve on earth. Now they weren’t allowed to go, with the new ban and all. Even lost their deposit. Later I found out they had plenty of money and it wasn’t the deposit that made them mad. They wanted the same privileges as the inner-worlders and felt discriminated against.”

         “Since Katy’s Place is in the neutral gap, inside Jupiter’s orbit between the inner-worlds and outer-worlds, I noticed at Katy’s both sides would start on a lot about the other side.”

         “And that’s what these rich outer-worlders were doing. Didn’t pay much attention until Captain Alex Grames name came up and I heard them badmouth him. Then I got involved.”

         “Alex Grames was the captain of our ship when we found Amenta. He is an outer-worlder that I have great admiration and respect for. And these clowns were making noise, since he was the caption of an inner-worler’s ship. They were insinuating that he was a trader to the outer-worlds.”

         “I walked over and stuck my stick in their faces and I said, ‘I served with the man and if he has a reason to work for the inner-worlds then that’s his business.’ I told them I thought the whole inner outer-world crap is predigest bull-shit.”

         “I guess I came unglued a bit and I started poking my stick. Telling them, ‘I was going to start shoving assholes up my stick until I had them all lined up on it, unless they shut up about the Caption.’”

         “Must have come on pretty intense since they were big guys and a lot of them. Might have helped there’s a lot of crazy people on that station and who knows what a crazy person might do. They shut up and apologized. One guy asked me when I served with Captain Grames and when I told him he had this strangest smile.”

         “The next day I was nursing a bit of a hangover from the liquor and I heard this knock on my door. I opened it and there was this most beautiful girl. She looked like a blonde angel. She said she needed to see me about something and ask me if she could come in and tell me. I let her in mostly because I wanted to get back to the couch and put the ice bag back on my head.”

         “She started talking to me, she smelled good and her voice was sweet. She sounded like a melody. Pretty soon her soft hands rubbed my forehead and she asked what she could do for me, saying stuff like that. My head was awful foggy and I didn’t understand. I guess I was pretty slow because it took me a while to catch on why she had come to my door.”

         “Finally I sat up and ask her, ‘What are you doing here and what is your name?’ She told me her name was, ‘Destiny.’”

         “’Destiny’ I said. ‘That sounds like a made-up name like the girls have at the Men’s World club.’”

         “She started laughing. ‘Now you get it, I am from the Men’s World and I have been sent here as an apology from the guys you got mad at last night for bad mouthing your Caption. But my real birth name is actually Density. It’s on my birth certificate. But it works pretty good at the club, doesn’t it?’”

         “It got me worked up, someone using their money to buy someone and give them to another person. Especially since these guy’s were going on last night about all the disrespect the inner planets had for them, because their lot in life was an outer-world birth. Yet they used their wealth to push around a young girl whose lot in life wasn’t as fortunate as their own.”

         “I told her to get out and leave. She got upset and started crying, ‘She couldn’t go back right away because the other girls would see her come back so soon and make snide remarks that she wasn’t liked by the client.’ So I let her stay. Pretty soon she was back rubbing my temples and well, we had a lot in common and after some time we eventually ended up together.”

         “For her I finally did meet up with the outer-world guys. The guy with the odd smile said, ‘If you were with Captain Grames when you said you were then you must know where the planet Amenta is.’ Since that was before it was illegal to talk about it I said, ‘So what if I do?’”

         “’Well, we want to go there.’”

         “’Why would you want to go to Amenta,’ I asked them.”

         “’The inner-worlds won’t let us hunt in their safari-parks and there’s nothing really good on the outer-worlds. Not many people have heard of the deadly robots of Amenta, but we have and we think it would be the biggest thrill-hunt of all time.’”

         “The last thing I wanted to do is go back to Amenta and I told them I wouldn’t do it. Then they said they would buy me a ship, half now and half when we got back. Plus 500,000 Marks in expenses. I wanted my own ship so bad I really didn’t think about what a mess things might come too.

         “So we made a deal. They put half down on the ship and I took them to Amenta. Everything was fine, the robot came and they had so much fire power they knocked it right over.”

         “Then they started high-fiving each other and cutting off souvenirs, standing around like they were stricken by something. I kept yelling at them to get in the ship, but no one paid any attention.”

         “When the other robots showed up they didn’t even run to the shuttle, instead they got in to positions like they were going to fight on. I couldn’t believe it. I lifted off and started taking out the closest machines, but task was hopeless. Exactly like the first time. The big-thrill hunters all died and there was nothing I could do about it.”

         Jymile suddenly stopped talking. He took a long and quiet careful look into the faces of his table companions.

         He said with a strong even voice, “I think my situation with you guys is exactly the same as it was with the big-game hunters.”

         ”Destiny ended up being special to me and I liked her very much. I have nothing but fond memories of us together and, although we no longer see each other, from time to time we still send messages.”

         “The thrill-hunters gave me that. Even though she was just some Men’s World girl they were using to get to me. If it were only sex I wouldn’t have contacted them. In fact a year went by before I would even talk to them.

         “But Destiny would say ‘You should talk to them because we’d never even met if it wasn’t for them. You should at least talk to them.’ She was right, but I still didn’t do it for a year. They had made me so mad. Finally I did make a deal with them. And look how that worked out. They’re dead on Amenta.”

         Jymile looked at Dan and said words with truth, “On Amenta it might be the same with you Dan. Probably will end exactly the same with you.”

         “You guys gave me my ship back and with Lugar, for whatever reason, not after me any more I can leave this rock and have a life again.”

         Jymile focused on the big blond guy and repeated his words more plainly, “Dan if you insist I take you to Amenta there will be death. The planet will require it. Your death, my death. Both of our deaths. Death is waiting on Amenta and I don’t want to go there.”

         Jymile stopped. That was it. He would not go back Amenta. What could they possibly give him in exchange for his life?

         His final decision. He was not going to Amenta. It was done. He had enough to start over with right now. Go see Linda. Without big ship payments a freelance pilot could pay. Do the cargo runs if he had too. Maybe he could even fall back into the warm embrace of love that Linda and he used to have.

         Penrose looked at Dan and he had the question in his eye. Dan nodded back. He still wanted to go.

         Rodger took the card with the star cords on it and folded one side so it stood up and Jymile couldn’t see the number he was writing. Penrose folded the card completely shut and slid it over to Jymile.

         It couldn’t hurt. His mind was fully made up. His fingers slightly unfolded the card and he peeked in.

         There were so many zeros after the number! No wonder Rodger had no fear giving him money or his ship back. An impossible number, too much money for him to resist. He would bet his life. The money loomed in his mind and he forgot his vow to let nothing get in his way of being with Linda.

         Jymile’s instinct had completely vanished and his poker-face was nowhere to be found.

         Rodger looked at him and smiled. He said, “You don’t have to answer now, you can wait until tomorrow.”

         Jymile’s fingers struggled hard to close the card and slide it back to Rodger. With all his will he fought to turn the offer down, but the number was to big, impossible to refuse. His fingers were paralyzed and they had no control of his arm.

          His reflexes shot his hand across the table into the big guy’s hand. Not caring if it got crushed.

          “Ok, Dan you got a deal.”


*******



         Jymile sat on the floor slumped against his ship’s control panel, using a flight suit against his back as a cushion. He had made the jump outside the Solar elliptic and sent his ship flying to the Star Lane.

         It took only four seconds of instance concentration to jump through hyperspace. Now he was slowing fast in real space and the de-acceleration pushed him against the control room’s floor with a strong gravity force.

         Most people thought of hyperspace as an empty formless vacuum outside of real space. But hyperspace is really the denseness of everything. Not a separate space, but an inner spot were all of everything has happened all at once.

         In hyperspace there is no past or future, you have already made the jump. You just have to find it and follow it. Not everyone could visualize it, and not everyone could do it.

         It felt good to be in the control room of his ship, his eyes happy to see the room. When he saw the doors to the survival ice beds and he remembered the bottle of Jack Daniels he had hidden under the bunks. The bonus the Moon warehouse man had given him when he picked up the guidance chips.

         He hated the ice room and its ice beds, but the safety feature was necessary and required for any vessel that carried 10 or more. If for some reason the ship broke down or was lost with no hope of rescue, the ice bed’s cryogenic freezing would give the person a chance to survive.

         The big problem being, it still wasn’t routine to unfreeze the person. The ice crystals damaged the cells and repair wasn’t completely worked out. Luckily hyper-jump ships were reliable and the beds were rarely used. The unlucky few were that had been forced to use the ice beds were still frozen in a storage facility, waiting to be unthawed. They said the thawing details should be completely worked out in 60 or 70 years, but it could be a hundred.

         He shuttered just thinking about it. A hundred years of frozen nothing and then waking up in an unfamiliar world. He couldn’t image anything that would make him get into an ice bed, maybe not even death itself.

         When they searched his ship he wondered if the had found the Jack Daniels. But reaching around under the bunks he felt the bottle and brought it out. They had been honest or they hadn’t found it. Either way he smiled, he had the bottle now.

         He examined the label. It was damn rare to get a bottle of this off Earth. Opening the top he smelled the vapors rising out and he savored them awhile. The aroma felt good on his nose. He took a sip and let the strong liquid roil on his tongue. The taste was sharp and it tickled his tongue. The liquor gently nibbled at his mouth, not offensively, but with a pleasing warm touch.

         He lingered on the sensation letting it roll down. The feeling tasted good. After the tingling faded he took a long slow drink and let the warm flow through his mouth and the hot feeling run down his throat. The Daniels had gotten smother and he savored the fiery aftertaste that lingered.

         “Damn it’s been a while,” he said looking at and talking to his top-shelf bottle. “You’ve been away too long! Here’s to ya,” and he took another long deep drink.

         Soon he felt the warm effects of the Jack soothing and comforting him. He was glad he hadn’t contacted Linda until this Amenta thing was over. It had been the right thing to do. She liked the future set with plain goals, speculation plans and dreams bothered her.

         He met her after he’d taken the big-game hunters to Amenta and already had his ship. But, since the hunters died on the planet, he still had half the ship’s cost. He owed too much money for an asteroid pilot’s pay, so he tried to hustle business taking the jump to Alpha Centauri or Epsilon B.

         Unfortunately for him there were plenty of bigger and fancier ships. He did find some passengers with Solar System destinations overlooked by the big guys, but this wasn’t a real lucrative market and that’s why he turned to smuggling.

         And look where that got you, feeling his emotions floating on the warm Jack. Two years prison time in a nasty Mars cell and now flying off to a risky near certain death. And death certain if I turn around and don’t take the risk.

         He took another long drink of the Daniels. “Good stuff, I thank you,” he said smiling at the bottle.

         He met Linda when she was singing in a small jazz bar on Neptune’s Station, where he had taken a client about six years ago. She was thinish and had long dark hair, and maybe she was even a little mousey. But there was something about her, from the moment he saw her, he loved her right away. He made every effort to sweep her off her feet. He even stopped seeing Destiny.

         Everything was great for a couple of years. But he had to cut his bills close to keep his ship and eventually that turned out being to much of a strain. Then he did the stupid Mars smuggling thing.

         I swore I wouldn’t let anything come between me and Linda and I wouldn’t take Dan to Amenta and the next day I agreed to do it. The money was too much, but I swear next time, no matter what, nothing will stop me from being with Linda.

         During his prison time they had sent messages and she did come and see him once. Even then he knew they were weakening. He wished he’d sold his ship and went back to the cargo runs. But the only thing that made the cargo runs bearable was the thought of getting a ship. He just couldn’t go back.

         He looked at his half-empty bottle of Daniels and put the top back on. All the past wasn’t anything now. All empty space behind him. He spoke to his capped bottle, “Half for now and half after Amenta.” He happily slid down the control panel, the two G’s of de-acceleration pulling him to the floor. He didn’t bother to go to his quarters. He just pulled the flight suit under his head for a pillow.

*******


         The next day at the Star Lane’s maintenance center Jymile floated down the stairwell in weightlessness and pushed himself over to his mechanic. He watched his friend put the finishing touches on the thruster couplings.

         “We couldn’t find a stealth cover for your model of shuttle and we had to use a regular one,” Ajual told him. “So your shuttle won’t be stealthy. You’re not planning to go anywhere you need to be under the radar, are you?”

         “Two years in a Mars prison kind of takes that out of you,” Jymile said laughing at his friend’s teasing. He hid his even more dangerous plans.

         “We couldn’t get the correct bevel housing for the thruster yoke, but we were able to machine the old one and get it to work. It’s not quite up to spec but will work for a while, at least three or four trips. It won’t break on you, but it’ll feel stiff and could stick. You’ll have to watch for that.”

         Then he added, “When you get to Alpha Centauri it won’t be hard to get a taxi shuttle to come out get your client, will it?

         “You guys must have been on this all night,” Jymile said, as he glossed over the little implication that he could be stretching the truth where he was going..

         Jymile took out his payment pad, “What do I owe you? Don’t go easy and add in some extra from the times I’ve talked you down.”

         Ajual smiled and said, “I don’t know who you’re riding, but I have already received payment for all the work and a fill-up of your containment fields with anti-matter. You’re full and ready to go.”

         "Are you sure?” Jymile asked confused. It took two million Marks for a full-fill and he didn’t need anywhere near that much.

         “Where does it say that?” he asked.

         Ajual floated over to the workbench, picked up the clipboard with the work order on it, and pushed over to Jymile.

         “See, right here.” Ajual pointed to the typed number that showed the bill paid in full with cash Marks.

         “Cash too,” He said with a laugh. “You got some nice action on his deal.”

         At fist Ajual had been his mechanic, but over the years they had gotten close. They went out drinking together and Ajual was a real friend. They shared their feelings and Ajual knew who Jymile loved.

         “Linda’s here you know,” Ajual said factually. “She knows you were arriving, so she stayed an extra day.”

         “She came here to see me?” Jymile asked surprised. “How could she have known I was coming and make it here in time from Neptune?”

         No,” Ajual said. “She was here already.”

         “You know she’s been sick for a long time and it’s really getting bad. She came here to go to a hospital ship that is docked at the new Star Lane they are building about two days from here.”

         “Damn, you know when they get that bigger and better Star Lane done it’s going to really cut down on our business,” he said, throwing in a comment to shade the fact of Linda’s health.

         “I know she’s been sick, she had problems before even I met her. But she hasn’t said anything about it getting worse. How bad is it?” Jymile asked, worry in his voice.

         “I think she should tell you herself. She asked me to give you the key to her room in case she isn’t up and about,” Ajual said and gave Jymile the key.

         “She’s got some of the guys we used to hang with meeting at the Starline Bar for a get together. I’ll be there. She probably won’t be able to party much or stay long, but I’m sure she wants you to take her by.”


*******



         Jymile took the tress-elevator from the weightless Star Lane’s maintenance shop to the outer-wheel where the spinning gave some gravity. He followed the corridors to Linda’s door and knocked, even though he had the key. Linda opened the door and threw her arms around him kissing him hard and happily, surprising him with her enthusiasm.

         “I was so sad because I wasn’t going see you before I went to the hospital ship. It’s really lucky you had a client going to Alpha Centauri. I was supposed to leave yesterday, but I stayed for a day when I found out you were coming. I’m just so happy you’re here!”

         “I’m really happy too,” he said, his breath rapid from her kiss. “I wanted to see you and I was thinking of going by Neptune’s Station, but I have this important client and he wanted to get going as soon as possible. I had no idea you were here until Ajual told me.”

         “Isn’t it great the way things turned out!” she said. “Hey, some of the guys we used to hang with were already here at the Star Lane waiting in line for the Epsilon B jump. So I invited them to get together for some fun before everyone has to go. Crazy Larry’s here and Cannon. Remember how funny it was; you guys were always calling him “Loose Cannon.”

         “At first I thought you guys called him that because he was so good with the girls, you know “loose.” Then I found out it was because he always had some stupid accident or something and messed you guys’ plans.”

         “Anyway let’s head down to the Starline bar in a bit. Just for little while though, I want to come back up here and you know…” she wiggled her hips up against him and cupped her hands on his butt.

         “Alright,” Jymile said. She surprised him, usually she wasn’t this forward.

         “But you better not lose that mood!”

         “I’m not going too!” she promised

         At the bar they had a lot of fun. Crazy Larry was there talking long and fast about things that weren’t all that believable, but he was so serious about it you couldn’t help but buy in. Cannon was married now and not “loose” with the girls.

         He went on a lot about his baby boy who seemed to have a lot of clumsy accidents. Jymile and Linda gave each other a few laughing whisperers. The accident prone trait didn’t fall far from the tree.

         The first thing Jymile had done when he got to the bar was to get the bartender aside and tell him, “I’d like to pay a tab and give the party an open bar.”

          Jymile held his wallet, so the inside couldn’t be seen, and started to take out a 10,000 Mark bill from the cash left in his room, but instead took out six of them. He slipped one of the bills to the bartender for the tip. “Here’s another five, keep the party going for my friends. Don’t let them pay for anything until this is gone, however long that takes.”

         “In fifteen minutes or so say someone called to say they are going to host the party. The food and everything is on the house.” The bartender looked happy and surprised. This was the first time he had been tipped a 10,000 Mark.

         All their friends kept saying how good it was seeing Linda and Jymile together. Everyone was excited and happy, having fun just like the good old times. Ajual was there and when the bartender said everything was on the house, he and Jymile cheered with everyone else because of the good luck.

         Ajual said to the group, “You know, Jymile’s got some damn fine action on his rider. Hey, they even picked up his fuel bill.”

         After they left Linda said, “You might have fooled them, but I know you hosted the bar bill. Are you sure you can afford that? I know you have a good paying client, but you should be careful. I’m hoping you don’t get out of control. You had so much out there and then you got in to trouble with Lugar and the Mars thing.” He heard the concern in her voice.

         “Its ok,” he reassured here. “I just bought a few rounds. I had money planed for fuel, but like Ajual said, the client paid so it’s a bonus. I just passed a little on to our friends.”

         “Ok,” she agreed, “just promise me you’ll be careful with your money.”

         “I will.”

         “Hey, there was something you promised me!” He teased her, grabbing her on her butt.

         She giggled and wiggled up close.


*******



         Jymile lay in bed next to Linda. They had been apart so long and sex had been really good. Linda didn’t have the wild crazy time of love making that some guys are always bragging about. She was sweet and loving and she had a more gentle way.

         He didn’t really know how to explain it, maybe more of a married style. And he liked that, he really did wish they were married. He ran his toes along her leg to tickle her, seeing if she was awake. She giggled sticking her legs back up against his stomach.

         On the way from the maintenance shop he had stopped at the Star Lane’s gift store and bought her a diamond ring. Not too fancy, nice, and not as big as he could have afforded. The diamond was set in a style he knew she would like.

         His real plan was to take care of business on Amenta before trying to see what he could do about getting back with her. But now she was here and she had to leave in the morning to the hospital ship, he might as well make the move now.

         He rolled over some and took the ring out of its box. Then he pulled his pillow off of the bed and put it on the floor, sliding naked off the bed he kneeled on it. Gently he rolled her over until her face was up next to him.

         “What are you doing,” she laughed.

         He held out the ring and said, “I’m asking you to marry me.”

         “What?” She said, pulling herself up on her elbow. “Marry you?”

         “Yes, I want to marry you as soon as we can.”

         “I’ve been really sick lately and I’m not sure if this is the right time. The doctor says I’m going to have stay on the hospital ship…” she said to him, being evasive.

         “We will get the best doctors in the Solar System. We’ll find a way to pay for them,” he said, thinking of all the money he had.

         “It’s not that,” she said. “It’s my cells, they are attacking each other and there is no cure. There isn’t anything that can be done.” She stopped a bit, and then said it, “I’m dying.”

          She looked bravely into Jymile’s eyes, her steady gaze shielded her feelings and her steady words hid her fear, “Maybe only in a few months.”

         Jymile hadn’t known how seriously sick she was and it frightened him. He desperately wanted to help her and it made him want to be with her even more.

         He said, “Even if it’s only for a little while, please marry me. I want to be with you for whatever time we can have.”

         She smiled at him, “That’s so sweet.” She took the ring and looked at it in the soft light of the room. “It’s a very nice ring and I like the way the diamond is set. But…” She gave the ring back to him. Jymile took the ring and it just hung down in his fingers.

         ”I can’t marry you. I’m going on the light-speed hospital ship. You know I leave in the morning.”

         “A light-speed ship?” Jymile was confused.

         “Who travels at light-speed? It’s either a hyperspace Star-Jumper or a Solar System ship at ten percent the speed of light. It takes too much energy to go light-speed. That’s too fast for the Solar System and its too slow for the stars.”

         He didn’t understand it at all.

         “Jymile,” she spoke his name gently and softly she looked in his eyes trying to stress the significance her words, “I will die very soon. Some people with a disease that is incurable have made the decision to be cryogenically frozen until a cure is found.

         But I just can’t make myself get into an ice bed and be frozen into the nothing.”

         Jymile absolutely knew that feeling. He had exactly the same fear about get into an ice bed.

         She went on. “There is a new way they are doing and I have signed up for it. The hospital ship travels at nearly the speed of light. It doesn’t go to any place. It just makes a big loop in space. But time slows down inside the ship and my cells will slow down from killing each other. When the ship gets back they will have found the cure.”

         Linda looked at Jymile and she hoped he would understand, “I’ve saved 325,000 Marks and put it into a trust fund. The interest pays for the cost of the trip and there will be some leftover to start a new life. It’s my life and I have no choice. I have to go.”

          Jymile really didn’t know what to say, he could only ask, “How long do you think it will be until they find a cure and you can be healthy? I will wait for you.”

         “The doctor says it will be thirty or forty years before they will find a cure.”

         Jymile was shocked; he would be an old man in forty years. But he leaned over, kissed her, and said, “Even if its forty years, will you marry me then?”

         She looked at him sadly and she said, “You don’t understand. The ship is very expensive to run and many people have to be on it. and many of the patients are sicker and have more difficult diseases to cure then mine.” Her words slowed to a stop.

         “The ship won’t be back for two hundred years.”

         “Two hundred years!” Jymile stood up naked and looked at her in despair and disbelief.

         “I’ll be dead. We’ll all be dead. Everyone we know will be dead!” He couldn’t believe it. It would be just the same as if she really died.

         “You’ll be gone forever,” his words turned softer and quieter as the sadness became more real. He could be dead this time tomorrow himself. How could he be angry about her trying to save her life, the only way possible, and he was going to take such a risk with his life just for money.

         He settled down next to her, feeling the warmth of her body, the smell of her neck, the softness of her legs against his stomach. Holding her all in, driving the moment into his memory, so as to never forget.

         Softly he asked. “Will you keep the ring, even though we aren’t getting married? I was planning later to get you a big rock.”

         “I’ll keep the ring. And I’ll love any rock you give me!” She snuggled back next to him, and like Jymile, she clung to their last moments.


*******



         Jymile hit the send key finalizing his personal commutations on the ships panel. Basically, it was his will he was sending. They were in line at the Star Lane and soon they would be hurtling along the buoys towards the depths of hyperspace.

         He had gone with Linda to meet her shuttle that took her to the hospital ship. They said good-bye bravely and he made her think he was strong, but he really didn’t feel that way. She was alive, but only in a far distant future. A distant two-hundred year future he would never see.
`
         She let him have her trust account number. He told her it would make him feel better if he could put in a little something. He put a few million Marks in it, to be accounted in a few weeks, so she couldn’t find out about it before she left.

         He kept 500 million Marks liquid, so if he got back, he would have plenty of cash on hand. He spread a few million around to friends and stuff to be paid out, but only if he didn’t make it back. If he did get back then he would find a way to get the money to his friends without them knowing how much he really had.

         But he put most of the 50 billion Marks into Penrose stock. He remembered Rodger saying the Penrose family had been around two hundred years and would still be around two hundred years from now. He knew Rodger was right. Jymile thought about how ironic everything had turned out, in a way Rodger was even getting his money back.

         Rodger had him hustled when the chocolate brown envelope was on the table. Leading him on him, bit by bit, letting him have his ship, making it so he could leave the station, giving the money to pay his docking fees. Letting him think he could walk a way without having to bet his life.

         Rodger’s hustle was bigger, but Jymile played the same game at the Star-Jumper. Letting the mark think he had a chance to walk away while he was ahead, before Jymile set up his long shot of green. The marks always stayed in the hustle too long, until Jymile made the impossible shot. And he had in Rodger’s hustle too long.

         He should have known better and walked before Rodger wrote down the impossible number. Now he was on his way to death. He couldn’t help but wonder out loud. “Third times a charm, but is that charm for me or is it for Amenta?”

          Jymile had been thinking a lot about Pluto’s Rock and how much better his life would have been fulfilled if he and Linda had found some tiny place like Rosie’s bar. She could sing jazz some nights and he would tend the bar and shoot pool with the customers. He knew that would have been a good enough life.

         But instead he never saw the small things. And now, if he lived, he would have a thousand times more money and things then he ever could have imagined. But he wouldn’t have Linda.

         50 billion, it was totally obscene. And in two hundred years it would probably be a trillion. Pluto would come past the Star Lane in less then a hundred years and once again Pluto’s Rock would have a valuable position in the planet alignment. However, 200 years from now it would once again be on the wrong side of the sun, not as valuable to the business minded.

          Jymile smiled, thinking how he had set things up. His fund would cash out of Penrose Industries in two hundred years and buy Pluto’s Rock. The rock would be put in Linda’s trust fund. She didn’t have to keep it, but he did say he was going to get her a big rock. And Pluto’s Rock was a pretty big rock! And who knows, she might even like that rock.

         Dan came up and wanted to know where to set and Jymile strapped him into the copilot’s chair. He tried to warn Dan that a Star Lane jump is a no small matter, especially since they were going to take a curve off the path and bend into hyperspace. This was not a four-second jump as they did inside the Solar System, but a four-minute gut wrenching ride. But Dan wanted to set up front and Jymile let him.

         Their turn came quick and as they flew down the Star Lane, out of the corner of his eye, Jymile could see Dan looking green as the last buoy went by. Jymile bent their path into the density of hyperspace, into the thick blackness of everything in the universe. He didn’t take the time to look, but he could hear the big guy throwing up into the bag Dan said he wouldn’t need, the bag Jymile insisted Dan have just in case.

         They came out of hyperspace light as a feather and floated a few kilometers above the dark side of Amenta’s moon, the ships thrusters slowing them to a gentle stop. The beacon looking for trespassers was shielded from them on the moon’s far side that faced the planet.

         “Alright! Pretty smooth don’t you think?” Jymile said as he looked over, but the big guy had already hidden the bag.

         “Not bad. When do we go down?”

         “Anytime you like.”

         “Right now is fine,” the big guy said.

         “Ok, get your stuff ready and I’ll start up the shuttle craft,” Jymile answered, surprised the guy was so quick to go.”

         Dan came into the shuttle bay, carrying his big powerful looking gun in a cloth caring case. Jymile was waiting by the shuttle wearing his Burster and bio-holster. Dan saw the gun and whistled out loud.

         “Can I take a look at that?”

         “Sure”

         Dan hefted the gun, checked to make sure the safety was on, and then twirled it in his big hands.

         “Good weight, damn nice feel,” he said. He bounced the gun up and down a few times and twirled it around again, before giving it back to Jymile.

         “Nice bio-holster. Really makes the draw fast, doesn’t it?”`

         “I know,” Jymile replied. “I’ve never had one before.”

         “Rodger give you those,” the big blond guy said, making more of statement then a question.

         “Yeah.” Jymile said.

         “Just keep that Burster in its holster. Remember this is my kill.”

         “I will.”

         But, only as long as you’re alive. I’m not going to risk my life anymore then I have too.

         Then Jymile reflected, this was the longest conversation they had made in the four days they’d been together.

*******



         In Amenta’s thick nitrogen the repaired thruster didn’t stick, but as Ajual predicted, it didn’t feel smooth. Jymile struggled a little with the controls as he flew over the 32 dead men of his old patrol and saw they were still there. He slowed and could see the eight men of his back-up, sprawled on the ground. Their un-decayed body’s perfectly persevered in the inert nitrogen, looking exactly as before.

         He tilted the craft so the big guy couldn’t help but see the ten bodies of the thrill-hunters; laying dead next to the few robots they had brought down. He made a point to land near them. The thruster was rough and he hit the ground a little hard, but the big guy didn’t seem to care.

         He warned the big blond again, “You will have only one shot at this. See that curve up ahead? That’s where the robot will be coming from. After you bring it down you can cut off a souvenir or pose by it, the camera on the shuttle will get your pictures.”

         Then he looked straight at the thrill-hunter and said, “I don’t know how I can emphasize this any harder. But there is something in the air here, something that makes men crazy. If after bringing this robot down you want to fight another one, I’m leaving you here and I’m taking off. We have, maybe five minutes, until the first one will show. Then in ten minutes this place will be swarming with them. There are too many, you can’t get them all, and you will die here.”

         The big guy grunted he understood. They pulled on their breathers and stepped out of the shuttle. Amenta’s lifeless air surrounded him; saturated, pretending it was alive. Anticipation hung in the nitrogen like a theater curtain before the final act. Jymile felt death hovering, he could hear its thick voice calling for him, calling for him to die.

         He glanced over to see what the thrill-hunter was doing and Dan was taking the cover off his gun. Jymile looked at the gun in utter disbelief. It was a projectile rifle.

         “That thing shoots bullets!” Jymile said to Dan, shocked.

         “Yah, but they are armor piercing and explosive. I’m a good shot, plus I’m really fast.”

         Jymile didn’t care. He already knew how things were going to end. It would be exactly the same. The big guy moved forward and Jymile stepped back from what would soon be a dead man.

         Then the noise and dust from the robot’s feet came down the road. The tip of the robot’s head showed as it came around the bend. The hunter raised his gun and started taking his shots. Jymile had to admit the blond guy was fast. He could see a line of bullets opening the robot’s plating, exploding inside, but the robot was faster and Dan hadn’t hit anything vital.

         A blast of laser light and Jymile felt the heat. His Burster was out of its holster faster then he could imagine, the gun’s beam cutting the metal between the monsters head and body. The head fell down the front of the military machine as it collapsed, and the robot’s head rolled up about a meter from where Jymile stood.

         He looked over at the hunter. Most of the right-hand side of the body was gone and blood pooled from its heart that was still beating, its dead body bleeding. Jymile stood in horror, unable to move. He hated this planet, he hated coming here, but here he was again.

         He tried to run, but his legs were helpless. He heard death loudly calling him, its voice coming through the nitrogen, paralyzing him. Time was suspended. Amenta’s air stood perfectly still. Only forever moved and it crept by.

          Maybe Jymile would have just stood there, paralyzed, standing around too long. But in anger he kicked at the robot’s head and it moved from his kick. It seemed pretty light; he bent over and shoved it. It rolled easy.

         I’m taking the robot’s head with me and getting out of here.

         He rolled the head over into the shuttle, his dread and paralysation leaving him. Jymile closed the cargo door and used the shuttle’s controls to get him away from sound of Amenta’s call of death, away from the planet of hate.


*******



         Jymile sat slumped up against his ship’s control cabinet and lifted to his lips the top-shelf Jack Daniels for another drink. Everything had happened so fast, just like the other times. He spoke to his bottle and said “To the final trip to Amenta. I will never come here again.” Then he lifted the bottle, “I told you, half before and half now!”

         The beacon on the other side of the moon had tracked him and probably had relayed the information already. He’d set the star-jump controls to a random jump to make it harder for anyone to find out where he might have gone. The telemetry would likely determine it was his shuttle that had gone to Amenta, but he would destroy the shuttle the first thing after the jump.

         He had plenty of money for a good attorney to raise enough doubts to a jury and get him off. “That is even if it goes to trail,” he said out loud. He hadn’t been rich long, but he was already getting the idea.

         He looked at the robot’s head he had taken from the shuttle and set on the control room floor. It had sunken square eyes and a big comb, like a rooster’s, coming from the top of its head. The head looked comical and harmless, now cut from its deadly body and arms of lasers. He had been thinking a lot about Pluto’s Rock and Rosie’s.

         He took another drink of the Jack Daniels, remembering the pool table at Rosie’s where he used to fumble around looking for a place to set his drink or put his stick.

         He looked at the robot’s head and slurred a little at it, “You know, put a table on your head and some holes to hold the pool sticks, and you would fill that spot at Rose’s. That little table I’d like have for my drink and for my stick.”

         Rose’s bar would cost pocket change, maybe he would buy it. A few days ago he remembered saying he couldn’t imagine any reason to want Pluto’s hollowed out rock. Now he had set it up to buy the rock for Linda, the two-hundred year’s in-the-future Linda.

         A lot had changed in the last four days, since he left Pluto’s Station, including himself. He asked out loud, “I wonder if I have enough money to buy Pluto’s Rock right now?”

         But Linda wouldn’t be there for two hundred years. And even though the whole Solar System was his to travel and do whatever he wanted, he knew how he felt last night with her. And the feeling wasn’t anywhere he could go. Or anything he could buy.

         He thought of Destiny and how good she had made him feel, but there wasn’t that intense feeling of want he had for Linda. He could go to Katy’s Place and see Destiny, or not, there were plenty of girls, plenty of “Destiny’s” in the Solar System.

         The only place Linda was - is in the two-hundred year future. His blood flowed hard and fear gripped him, as the thought that had crossed his mind before came back and terrorized him. Even facing death he didn’t know if he could go to the ice beds, but could he go to them for love? His eyes hesitated on the door of the room. The room to the ice beds.

         After the jump he could set a two hundred year course back to earth and sleep the way in the ice bed. Time would be nothing and he would wake up in the same two-hundred year future-world where Linda would be. It was a risk, but two hundred years seemed plenty of time for science to have worked out the thawing details.

         But can I do it? Will science have solved the thawing problems in two hundred years? If they don’t, I won’t be with Linda anyway. Can I face my fear of the ice bed for her, a fear as great as death itself?

         He took a long drink of his Jack and looked at the jump clock, the time blinking down from 2 to 1 minute. His thoughts wandered to the robot’s head, to the thoughts of Pluto’s Rock, and to thoughts of Linda.

         Then back to the thought of the ice room, thinking of the two-hundred year future-world where Linda would be.

         His eyes wandered to the clock. To the Jack Daniels bottle. To the robot’s head.

         Then to the ice room…

         The clock blinking under a minute.

          What am I going to do?

         Jymile took the last of the Jack Daniels from the bottle and stared at the robot’s head…


















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