On the eve of retirement, John Gage encounters a new beginning
|THE LATE DAWN OF A SOLAR KNIGHT
By Jeff Dosser
John Gage stepped through the double doors of the Seaside Vista Motel and into the glare of a cloudless dawn realizing a strong rain could wash away just about anything. Even the stench of the cannery and sour aroma of the fishing fleet anchored at road's end had been replaced with the crisp tang of damp earth and new beginnings.
Reveling in the quiet, his boots thudded along the boardwalk as he paused here and there peering inside glass-fronted shops or watching the fishing boats chug out of the bay and onto the mirrored surface of the crater sea. During his thirty years as graveyard supervisor for the Solar Knights, he'd relished this time of day. The peaceful solitude at shift's end held that rare moment between the bad guys passing out in their beds and the normal folk of Komarov rising to their daily toil.
As he checked his watch, John saw he'd need to wake Gil soon or they'd miss their nine-thirty flight. A grumble in his belly reminded him he was overdue for breakfast as well.
"And stay out, ya damn Kaopa!"
The cry originated two shops ahead where a young man catapulted through a set of swinging doors, flying ten feet before landing in a puddle with a splash. In an instant, the man had rolled to his feet and taken a fighting stance. Simultaneously, three brawny fishermen and a cloud of cigar smoke shadowed him out.
"Ya still owe me 500 credits, Yun," the young man in the street called. "Don't make me take it outta your hide."
The young man's steely eyes gleamed beneath swirls of ink adorning his face. The tattoos, a thousand-year-old symbol of Polynesian tradition was a badge of honor every Solar Knight bore. His blonde hair was close-cropped and shimmered in the dawn light, his once crisp shirt and denim jeans now mud caked and damp.
All three fishermen sprang across the railing, flying a dozen feet in Luna's low gravity before hitting the ground and surrounding him. The largest of the three, a bald giant fully half a foot taller than the young man's muscled eight and a half feet clapped his hands together with a pop.
"If you want your 500 credits," the big man grinned. "You gonna have ta take it."
With a shrug, the young man straightened. "All right, Yun. If that's the way ya want it."
He took a step towards the giant, a confident smile plastered on his face. The giant swung. With only the slightest tilt in his gait, the young man rocked to his left. Yun's ham-sized fist swished harmlessly past. Then the young man was inside the giant's defenses. Three quick blows thudded like hammers driving Yun back. Then the young man dropped to a knee and sent a fist rocketing for the giant's crotch. The blow landed with a meaty thud that had John and the other fishermen wincing in sympathetic pain. With hands clasped to his groin, the giant gave a squeak of agony before tilting like a felled pine and landing with a soggy plop on the muddy avenue.
Yun's friends exchanged a look of shock before springing to the attack. The first landed in front of the young man and drew a blade. The other landed behind. The fishermen circled, feigning kicks and slashes but staying clear of the young man's grasp. With a glint in his eyes and a smirk on his lips, the young man looked to John.
"You just gonna stand there or you gonna do somethin'?"
John had moved closer savoring the proceedings. Now he smiled. "I don't know, Gil." He propped himself against a support rail and lit a cigar. "Looks ta me like ya got things well in hand."
The fishermen, noticing John for the first time, spared a quick glance in his direction. It was all the opening the young man needed. Grabbing his attacker's knife hand by the wrist, he spun into the fisherman and slammed an elbow into his nose. Then throwing a hip into the howling man's gut, he yanked on the arm and flung him across his body. The now weaponless man sailed through the air impacting the second attacker and knocking him to the ground. Before either assailant could arise, Gil sprang. His fist landed with a smack across the second fisherman's jaw knocking him senseless.
"Enough!" A voice bellowed from the doorway.
An elderly man, his white apron rounded atop a prominent paunch, stepped through the double doors a revolver clasped in his hand. "I've had it with you Solar Knight dirtbags harassing my customers. You people ain't welcome."
"I suppose that includes me?" John asked. He turned to the shopkeeper and winked.
Jumping back in surprise, the old man leveled his weapon at John.
"You're one of em' ain't ya?" The old man scowled revealing rows of crooked tobacco-stained teeth.
John pursed his lips in consideration running a finger across the patchwork of tattoos on his cheeks and chin.
"Well, old-timer, if I’m not, I sure did waste a lot of good money on these tats."
One of the downed men groaned and rolled to his knees. When the barkeep's eyes flashed in that direction, John stepped forward and snatched the weapon from the old man's grip.
"Now go on inside." John waved the pistol barrel towards the door. "An' forget you ever saw us."
The old man backed inside followed by the metallic snick of the door's lock striking home. In the distance, the counterpoint wail of sirens announced someone had called the cops.
Gil stepped to the giant and delivered a kick to his gut before kneeling down and yanking a wad of cash from the big man's pocket.
"See," John said clomping down the wooden stairs and joining Gil in the road. "You didn't need my help after all."
Gil shrugged and looked down at the groaning men. "I sure coulda used you when there was six of em'."
"Six?" John's brows knitted. "How'd you make enemies with six fishermen all at the same time?"
"What can I say," Gil shrugged. "I have a gift. I think drawing an inside straight may have had something to do with it." He unfolded the roll of bills and stripped off five 100s then flipped the rest on the giant's head.
John glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the sirens. "So who you think's comin'?"
Gil's eyes drifted skyward in thought. "It's Monday morning, right?"
John nodded. "Yep, and Charlie squad has dock patrol on Mondays."
"Then the call was probably assigned to Phillips, Chen, and that asshole Williams."
"Williams?" John groaned. "Then we'd better git. We'll never talk our way outta this if Williams shows up."
Gil paused for a moment looking over his mud-stained clothes, then bent down and lifted another 100 credit bill from the pile.
"Dry cleaning charge," he said patting the big man's cheek.
As they hurried from the scene, John cast a final glance at the groaning men. "They musta been pretty tough tossing you around like that."
"Tough?" Gil chuckled as they rounded a corner and disappeared into the twisted streets of Kamorov. "Tough was those Kalic Rebels in the Haskin hills. You remember them? Hidin' grenades beneath themselves when they died. Now that was tough."
Despite being situated on a crater lake instead of one of Luna's vast oceans, the port of Komarov was one of the largest on the moon. Besides the vast fleet of fishing vessels working the 20,000 square miles of open sea, there was a constant flow of trains and airships moving people and products to the great landlocked cities to the east or the vast ocean ports to the west.
Rounding the choked lanes leading to the docks, John had his first glimpse of the craft they'd booked for their trip to the far side of Luna. The Monarch was similar to other lighter than air craft moored at the docks though slightly less massive than the big commercial haulers bound for the coast. She was a great finned spheroid supporting the smooth hulled vessel dangling beneath. Cables joining balloon to ship shimmered in the humid sea air while the Monarch's sails and stern fins were strapped tight against her teak wood hull. As they drew closer, John could make out the patchwork of repairs stitched into the ship's side and the material of the blimp above. Even the fuming smokestack at the craft's rear was dotted with silvery squares of sheet metal repairs. John paused in the shadow of the craft and shook his head.
"Gil, I thought we had reservations on an airship, not a flying junk heap."
Gil scratched away a chunk of dried mud before craning his neck and staring at the Monarch.
"Yeah, she's a real beaut, dont'ca think?" He glanced at John and grinned. "Only 1,000 credits a piece and that includes meals."
"A thousand credits?" John sighed. "At that price, they better have some pretty damn good beer or I'll be one unhappy knight."
Despite their lackluster greeting on the gangway, John was more than pleased with their accommodations. The room was cramped consisting of bunks recessed into paint-chipped walls, a tarnished brass sink and an accompanying toilet inside the water closet. A hideaway desk secreted behind the front door and a single teak dresser provided barely enough storage to hold even half their belongings. Yet despite the threadbare condition, the room was comfortable and the ship was well ordered.
The Monarch’s Captain, Jill Cooper, dropped in to check on them.
“I was told I had a pair of Solar Knights on the passenger list.” She reached out and took John’s hand in greeting. Her grip was firm and self-assured.
“Retired.” John waved a hand towards Gil as he stepped from the bathroom. “And this is my son-in-law Gil Horal.”
“Pleased ta meet you,” Gil said taking her hand.
As they spoke, John was impressed by the aged woman's demeanor. Years of experience were etched into her sun blemished face, and her easy laugh assuaged some of his fears.
“This is John’s first flight,” Gil said with an impish grin. “He’s afraid the ship might tumble from the sky.”
“Don’t worry,” Cooper said opening the door and stepping into the hall. “In forty-three years I’ve only crashed twice.”
“Only crashed….” John looked to Gil his eyes wide. “You think she was kidding?”
Once airborne, John’s stomach lurched with every bump of turbulence or groan in the ship's structure. He paced the tiny room like a caged beast.
"We should check out the rest of the ship?" Gil said. He lay on his bunk reading, but now that the Monarch had lifted off and steamed above the Moscovience Sea, John’s pacing had him eager to stretch his legs.
The Monarch had three levels, each running from bow to stern, each linked to the next by a series of staircases at the end. John followed the younger man from their berth on the bottom deck to the observation platform topside. From the railing, the face of the sea sparkled between lines of white-flecked waves. From ten-thousand feet, even the great track of cargo liners steaming their way north were but thin Vs across the water's indigo surface. To their south, the sprawling streets of Komarov were no more than a jumble of mish-mashed lines creeping along the coast. Further north, the distant shores were but a promise of green at the edge of perception.
It seemed the entire complement of passengers had trekked to the observation deck to gawk at the view. Most appeared to be outcasts and immigrants on their way to the cities further north. Some were clearly union laborers dressed in denim coveralls and matching white shirts. Likely on their way to high-paying contracts on the rough Serenitatis sea. Ever since the discovery of silver in the mountains surrounding Haemus, the north had been transformed into a hotbed of entrepreneurs hungry for labor or foolish adventurers eager for a chance to cash in on the silver rush.
John couldn't help but follow the movement of a redhead as she bent over the rails. Despite her baggy shirt and faded coveralls, there was no concealing the voluptuous curves hidden beneath. Beside her, a mother did her best to bundle an infant against the chill while the father pointed out landmarks to three older children at the railing.
"Can you believe how cold it is?" Gil dropped into a seat beside John, cupping his hands and puffing on them for heat.
Although John understood it was colder the higher you went, the experience was a shock nonetheless. In a matter of minutes, they'd gone from the stifling heat of the Komarov docks to the biting chill of high altitude air. He knew the atmosphere thinned as well, growing progressively harder to breathe the higher you went, but besides the icy nip in the lungs, his breaths felt no different than when they'd been on the ground.
"I hope the rooms are heated," he said. "I'm getting' too old to deal with sleeping in the cold."
Gil laughed and shook his head. "You know New Surat's 6,000 feet above sea level? It even snows in the winter. "
John clasped his numb fingers beneath his armpits in an effort to warm them. "Yeah, I seem to remember you saying something about that."
It had been three years since John's daughter, Chelsea, and his grandbaby died in childbirth. Gil was a fine son-in-law and a diligent Solar Knight, but he'd never fully recovered after their deaths. So on the eve of John's retirement, it came as no surprise when Gil approached him with the offer to join him in New Surat as replacements for the town's murdered sheriff. Gil had already accepted the post as the town's head law enforcement official and wanted John to accompany him as his deputy.
Before the offer, John had never heard of New Surat. He had to find it in an atlas at the station, a fast-growing city on the edge of the wilderness. With the recent discovery of precious metals in the surrounding hills, it was destined for greatness.
As he and Gil watched Komarov dwindle into the haze, the babble of voices slowly died away. One by one, passengers retreated to the warmth of the decks below leaving John and Gil in a lonely shared silence. Only the rhythmic thrum of pistons and snap of sails broke the quiet until the distant chime of the dinner bell drew them both below.
Despite leaving the cabin vents wide open, by the second day, John found himself driven from his room by the chill. He'd taken to spending most of his day reading in the dining hall at the ship's stern. It wasn't simply the fact the galley was above the churning heart of the Monarch's steam engines, and thus one of the warmest compartments on board, but the jaw-dropping views offered up by the dining hall's windows made it a place of constant visitation. Not just for him, but the other passengers as well.
Settled into a corner, John glanced up from a week old edition of 'The Komarov Times' to see Gil stroll into the room.
"What's up," John asked. "Tired of freezin' ur tail off down below?"
Gil dropped down beside him, a serious expression on his face. Leaning in, he glanced quickly around the room. His eyes lingered on first one table then the next. At this time of the afternoon, most seats were filled with people reading, chatting, or playing cards. A heated game of dominoes was taking place at the far end of the room; the players huddled over their tiles like ancient seers foretelling the future.
With a final glance at the uniformed conductor meandering between the tables, he said. "Have you noticed anything strange on this trip?"
John set the paper down and scowled. "Strange? Strange how?"
Gil's eyes narrowed. "Strange as in, there's not as many people as there were when we set out."
John studied the room. Now that Gil mentioned it, the place did seem less crowded than he remembered that first day. He imagined many would be spending time in their rooms or possibly on the chilly observation deck. On second thought, he doubted many would be topside. A chill breeze had blown in from the north as the Monarch plowed through banks of dark clouds and mist streaked air. No, there wouldn't be anyone braving the top deck today.
"They could be holed up in their rooms," John suggested.
"But what about meals?" Gil asked. "Have you noticed the tables seem less crowded?" He leaned back and leveled a finger at John. "And what about that curvy redhead you had your eye on?"
John felt his face grow warm as he cleared his throat and straightened in his chair. "Well, um." He paused a moment in thought. Gil was right. He hadn't seen the woman since that day on the observation deck.
"And the family with the noisy kids?" Gil suggested. "Or the bald union guy and his ugly wife."
John couldn't recall a bald union man, but he sure as heck remembered the family and their noisome brats. One had knocked over his whisky that first night at dinner. He hadn't seen them since. The likelihood the parents had sequestered themselves in a tiny room with four screaming urchins seemed far from likely.
"Okay," John said. "You've got my attention. "What do think's going on?"
Gil flipped over the paper and tapped on the headlines: Plant Explosion Linked To Gaean Rebels.
"Terrorists?" John's eyes went wide. "Here?"
At the next table, a young couple halted their conversation and glanced over.
"Quiet," Gil shushed. "There's probably one in the room."
John huffed and brushed away the paper, leaning his big arms on the table. "Gaeans would never attack a po-dunk ship like this." He waved a hand taking in the room. "There's what, twenty-five, thirty people on board." He shook his head and leaned back. "No, they'd hit industrial or environmental targets. The Monarch would be small potatoes."
"You know," Gil said, "our route takes us within an hour's flight of the uranium processing plant at Avogadro."
"And crashing this monstrosity into the plant would cause all kinds of chaos." He reached beneath his jacket and dropped a fist-sized cylinder on the table. It rolled across the wooden surface until a ringed pin on the cylinder's side brought it to a halt.
"A grenade?" John scooped the explosive into his lap as his eyes darting about the room to confirm no one had seen. "Are you insane? You can't smuggle one of these on board." Under the table, he slipped the device back to Gil.
"I didn't smuggle anything," Gil said flatly. He shoved the grenade in his pocket. "It was already here."
"Whadd'ya mean, already here?"
"I mean, the cargo hold is packed with explosives. A couple of crates with grenades. There's ammo and mortar rounds. As well as a whole wall stacked with demolition clay and blasting caps."
"Impossible," Johns said. "They can't haul stuff like that on a passenger ship?"
"The Monarch's not registered as a passenger vessel, Gil said. "If you check her registration, mounted outside the bridge, you'll see she's listed as a freighter." He nodded towards his pocket and the hump of the grenade beneath. "That, and all the other stuff is destined for the mines springing up around New Surat. You've got to remember, John, there's bandits in those hills. With the mines pulling out millions in valuable metals, the companies are outfitting their own private armies." He waggled a finger between them. "You and me, case in point."
John nodded mulling over the younger man's words. It made sense. If Gaean leaders knew of the Monarch's cargo, it would certainly make for a juicy target. If for no other reason than the supplies it contained. But as a flying bomb smashing into the processing plants at Avogadro, it had Gaea written all over it.
Following the societal crash 600 years ago, there were few significant power sources on the solar system's terra-formed worlds. Unlike Earth with her remaining supplies of fossil fuels, the rest of the settled worlds were left with nothing more efficient than primitive solar arrays and trees from the great forests. Even though nuclear power promised an end to deforestation in the name of progress, Gaean rebels still considered it a blight on their faith. The destruction of the Avogadro plant and the subsequent radiation disaster would be just the type of headlines they'd be after.
Still, he'd been a Solar Knight long enough to know that just because something could be a target didn't necessarily mean it was. If he was going to make that kind of leap, he'd need more proof.
"Okay," John said. "Let's say I agree there's merit to your argument. What do the missing passengers have to do with it?"
Beside them, the young couple rose from their seats, then arm in arm left the room. Gil watched them go then said, "I think they want to take the ship, but they don't have the numbers to do it. At least not yet. They know some people will fight back. If there's enough who do, it could ruin their plans. With all the growth taking place in the mountains, and all the ships hauling supplies, they'll likely only have one shot at taking over a ship. After that, the companies will post soldiers on-board and restrict the transport of dangerous materials." He opened his palms and shrugged. "It's what I would do."
"So where are the missing passengers?" John asked.
Gil shook his head. "Don't know. Could be they're tied up somewhere. If I was to guess, I'd say they're dead. Thrown overboard probably."
Again, Gil was right. Gaean's had little concern for the life of the individual. They considered humanities acceptance of its place in the natural universe as the ultimate goal. The death of a few dozen, or as at the time of the crash, a few billion, was of no more consequence than the pruning of a diseased branch. But missing passengers were a fact that could be verified. If they were imprisoned, then locating them was something they could do. If they were gone. Well then, their absence would be just as telling.
"Gaean cells are split into groups of three," John said, remembering his training on Luna's extremists. "They consider three a holy number. Which means we're dealing with a minimum of three terrorists. If there's three cells involved, we could be looking at nine."
A shout of anger at the domino table was met with catcalls as one of the union laborers flung down a fistful of credits and stomped from the game. His seat was quickly filled from the handful of spectators gathered around the table.
"How far is this plant you're talkin' about?" John asked.
Gil shrugged. "No idea. It's not far from New Surat." He tapped his chin in thought. "I'll have to check, but I'm thinkin' if we pass it, it could be as soon as tomorrow morning. Tomorrow afternoon at the latest."
"If you're right about this," John said scanning the room, "Then one of the terrorists is probably in here with us. They'll be keeping tabs on the passengers. Since this is the main gathering point, it'd make sense to be here."
Gil pushed up from his seat. "I'm gonna check on the redhead and the bald union guy. I'll be back in a flash."
"Wait," John stopped him with a glance. "Get that pistol I took from the old man. That and a spare blade are stashed in my top drawer."
"Please," Gil smiled and drew back his coat revealing the bejeweled scabbard of his bent bladed kukri. The weapon issued to every Solar Knight at graduation. "My shit is custom."
John waited patiently for Gil's return, sipping at a glass of whiskey as he studied the room. People came and went, some returning soon after, others not returning at all. Eventually, a pair of waiters shoved in carts loaded with food and began serving dinner. Despite the thick aroma of broiled bass and grilled potatoes, John couldn't eat. By the time he began to worry, Gil came strutting in with a dark expression on his face.
"So whad'ya find?" John asked.
Gil dragged out a chair. The legs screeched noisily across the hardwoods and drew looks of disapproval from the surrounding guests.
"Nothing good." He snatched a fistful of potatoes from John's picked over plate and spilled them into his mouth. "In fact, there was nothing. Nothing at all."
"I guess you found the hottie and the union guy? You broke into their rooms?"
"Yeah," Gil said. "I paid a couple credits for a kid to take the purser a note. I remembered the union guy's name was Boris Smithers. Same as the old crank who worked down in the property room at the west side station. Anyway, the note said the sink was dripping and getting all over the floor. I just waited outside the purser's office for him to send someone down to check. I found the curvy woman's room by asking around. Seems she drew more than just your attention." Gil shrugged. "As for the kids and their family. Well, I didn't have any luck with them. Anyway, the door locks were standard tumblers so getting inside was a piece of cake."
"Were there signs of a struggle?" John asked.
Gil grimaced and shook his head. "Nope. There were clothes and belongings, but no people. Nothing but empty rooms. How about you? Any idea who our spy might be?"
John scooted away his plate and leaned closer. "I've got it limited to three. There's a couple maybe's but I think it's got to be one of these." He bumped his chin to the back corner where faded velvet curtains were drawn together in a bunch. Leaning back, his chair propped against the wall was a square-jawed man in his mid-twenties. His close-cropped hair was immaculate and despite the chill, he wore a fitted sleeveless shirt and tight slacks.
"You've got Mr. Good-Lookin' over in the corner," John said. "He eyes everyone who steps in, especially the ladies. He keeps notes in his pocket." He tilted his head to indicate the other side of the room. "You see the table with the purple-haired woman and the old fat guy?"
Gil leaned over to get a view. "Yeah. They look harmless."
"Well, if you look past them to the next table, you'll see a beefy guy with his nose in a book. He's been like that all day. I remember him from yesterday too. "
A waiter stepped up and took Gil's order. John requested another whisky. When he left, Gil asked. "Who's the third?"
John looked towards the dominoes players and took a sip. "The host of the dominoes game hasn't left the table all day. My money's on him."
"So what's the plan?" Gil asked.
Ever since Gil left to investigate, John had been thinking about that very question.
"I say we wait for one of em' to leave. We follow an' see where they end up. Like as not, they'll meet up with their pals."
"What if we follow the wrong one?" Gil asked.
John took another sip and wiped a wrist across his lips. "That's a chance we gotta take. If we follow someone and it turns out to be nothing, we come back and wait for the next one."
Gil's meal arrived and he ate in silence. John pulled out a paper and made to read. He watched as other passengers came and went. He noticed Mr. Good-Looking exchanging glances with a woman across the way. John had seen her earlier with an older man in a careworn suit. On her way out, she passed Mr. Good-Looking's table and discretely handed him a note.
"Bingo." John set down his paper and drained his beer.
"What'cha got?" Gil asked.
"A woman just passed Mr.Good-Lookin' a note. I think they're our guys."
John pushed back from the table and jammed the paper beneath his arm. "I'll follow the girl. You think you can keep track of the guy?"
Gil snorted his brows rising in surprise. "Me? It's you we should worry about. How many years since you've tracked down an attractive woman?"
As John threaded his way past the tables and stepped into the hall, he realized even a blind man could have tracked the girl. All they'd have to do was follow the strawberry scent wafting through the air. Hurrying down the corridor, he heard the faint whine of a hinge and the snick of a latch. Strolling past a service closet, he thought he heard movement behind the door. At the end of the hall, he started up the stairwell then dropped onto one of the stairs and waited. Gil joined him five minutes later.
"He's in the second door down the hall," Gil said. "You think that's where they stashed their weapons?"
John wasn't sure. He suddenly wished he'd grabbed the old man's revolver. Despite his proficiency with the kukri, it was common sense to not bring a knife to a gun fight.
"Our only advantage is surprise," Gil said. "If we hit em' hard, we may only have one terrorist left to deal with."
Anticipation gleamed in the younger man's eyes and John felt the old thrill of the hunt surge through his veins.
"Okay," John agreed. "Let do this."
With a check, ensuring the coast was clear, they padded down the hall taking positions on either side of the door. John thought he heard a moan inside but wasn't sure.
Gil held up a fist, his other hand on the knob. "On three," he whispered.
John pulled his kukri. It’s razor sharp edge gleamed as he squeezed the familiar leather grip.
Gil mouthed the count as he raised one finger then the next.
He shoved open the door and they dove in. The room was dark, lit only by the light streaming in from the hall. In that pallid glow, two round humps, the butt cheeks of Mr. Good-Looking were positioned between the shimmering V formed by a pair of shapely dark legs. Two surprised faces turned and stared at up at them.
"Oh! Um." John sheathed the blade and backed into the hall. "So sorry. Wrong room."
As they slammed the door and turned to leave, they found the conductor standing behind them.
"May I help you, Knights?"
Gil sheathed his blade, the color rising in his face. "Uh. No. We thought something fishy might be goin' on. Wanted to check it out."
The door swung open and the blonde scurried past. Her hair was a mess, her shirt half buttoned. She dashed down the hall and disappeared up the stairs. A heartbeat later, Mr. Good-Looking shuffled out, a sheepish grin on his face.
"There's a law against fornicating in public." The conductor said. His voice dripped ire. "I hope you won't force me to call the authorities at our next stop."
Mr. Good-Looking's neck went scarlet as his eyes dropped to the floor.
"No, uh. I was...Uh." He pointed down the hall, then turned to look back over his shoulder. "I should go." He turned and likewise, disappeared down the hall.
The three men watched him go. The conductor turned, his gaze drifting across Gil and John. "If you two knights are done with your crime fighting, I've got passengers to attend to."
The man's steps echoed hollowly along the corridor leaving them in silence.
"That certainly went well," Gil said on their way back to the room. "I still can't believe that guy got up behind us like that and neither of us noticed."
John grabbed Gil's shoulder and brought him to a halt. "Whad you just say?"
"I said that went well." He squinted in disapproval. "I was being sarcastic."
John shook his head. "No the other part."
"You mean how that guy snuck up behind us?"
"Yeah, strange don't you think? We're Solar Knights, for God's sake. Trained by a lifetime of surveillance and stealth. Born to combat. Sworn to valor and the undoing of the wicked. Defenders of the helpless." He turned and glanced down the hall. "And a conductor on a worm-eaten hauler sneaks up behind us like we're a couple school girls passing notes in class." He shook his head. "I don't buy it."
John turned and stared down the hall. "You know there was another person who was in the dining room the whole time. Someone I never considered."
"Gaean priests are trained in combat," Gil said, "If the processing plant were a big enough target, they might send their top men."
"Then we're screwed," John said. "I'll bet they're waiting for us in our cabin right now." His eyes ping-ponged to every door along the hall. "Or somewhere in between."
"We should tell the captain," Gil said. "They've got pistols in the magazine. Besides, as long as we hold the bridge, the worst they can do is down the ship."
John nodded. "You're right. Let's tell Cooper."
The jog to the bridge drew little more than curious stares from passengers strolling the halls. When John knocked on the bridge door, there was a pause before a peephole slide back and the captain's aged eyes glared out. The grill slid shut followed by the sound of a bolt sliding back as the door eased open.
"Knight Gage, Knight Horal." Captain Cooper waved them in with a grin.
The great wooden wheel at the room's center was surrounded by walls of glass. The hardwood floors and brass fixtures gleamed in the ruddy glow of the Luna sunset. On the horizon, the blue marble of a full Earth peered through a line of thin white clouds. Besides a captain's chair, two mounted seats were positioned beside rows of glass-fronted gauges, levers, and buttons. Both seats were empty.
"What can I do for you gentlemen?" The captain dropped into her seat, spinning around to face them.
John and Gil spent the next half hour laying out their suspicions and the mystery of the missing passengers. Cooper sat with her legs crossed nodding here and there at their narrative. When they'd finished, her eyes narrowed and she considered them for a long while.
"If it was anyone but a pair of Solar Knights," she said, "I'd think you were off your rocker. But if what you say is true, I'd be remiss if I didn't check it out."
Sliding from her chair, she pulled a speaking tube from the wall and called, "Mr. Jacoby. Secure a weapon and report immediately to the bridge. And bring Mr. Sikes. Those Solar Knights have discovered our plan."
By the time John realized what she'd said, it was too late. When Cooper turned, she gripped a pistol in her bony hand. John and Gil wrenched free their blades, but before either could move, Cooper fired. The bullet caught Gil in the chest and slammed him against the wall.
Cooper drew a bead on John and shook her head. "Unless you want to end up like your friend I suggest you drop the knife."
Gil stumbled to the window clutching at his chest. Blood oozed between his fingers as his face went pale. "Just...just remember, John." He coughed and blood freckled the glass. "I was tough...as a ... Kalic rebel." His legs gave way and he slid to the floor and slumped to his side.
John's teeth clenched as he stared into Cooper's eyes. Rage swirled like an inferno. "I'll gut you for that."
A smile twitched the corner of the old woman's lips. "Possibly, but not today." She waggled the pistol's barrel. "Now drop the blade."
John's kukri clattered to the floor as the door behind them blasted open and two men sprang inside. One was the conductor. The other, the dominoes player.
"Open the window and toss out the body," Cooper said. "Then take our Knight friend down to storage and lock him away with the others."
As they bent to lift Gil's body, his son-in-law's words echoed in John's mind: Tough as a Kalic rebel.
Before the grenade rolled free from Gil's pale fingers, John was on the move. Cooper's gun barked sending pain sizzling through his bicep. Then the explosion rocked the room. In one instant the air was stiff with the reek of sweat, machine oil, and the sharp bite of burnt gunpowder. The next, an icy wind ripped through the room like a tornado. Gil's grenade tore a ten-foot gap in the Monarchs glass walls revealing the dark cratered surface of Luna thousands of feet below. Gil's body, as well as the conductor and his pal, were gone.
During the explosion, Cooper had dropped her gun. She scrambled across the floor, snatched it up, and rose. When she turned, John was there.
"Never doubt the word of a Solar Knight," he snarled.
He slashed the kukri across Copper's belly and shoved her back. As her pistol clattered to the floor, Cooper's guts steamed through her clasping fingers. She looked up at John in horror.
"This is for Gil." John raised a foot and booted her into the void.
Lifting a glass, John took a long sip before setting it down on the table and considering the panel of knights seated on a podium across the room.
"That's how it ended, Marshall Givens," John said. "I discovered the missing passengers along with the navigator and co-pilot locked in the lower chambers." He glanced at the crowded gallery and the dozens of curious faces. "The Monarch limped into New Surat the following day."
The old knight at the center of the tribunal stroked his gray beard for a long moment before clearing his throat. "Knight John Gage. We thank you for your candor as well as your years of service. You're a shining example of what it means to be a Solar Knight." He glanced to his left and right and was met with nods of approval by the other judges.
"Therefore," the old man continued, "based on witness testimony as well as your own statement, we find your actions without fault and declare this case officially closed." He raised a gavel and slammed it on the desk.
John made his way through the buzzing crowd and stepped onto a street packed with electric cars and horse-drawn haulers laboring along the choked streets of New Surat.
"You did a fine job on the stand." John glanced over to see the attractive redhead from the Monarch grinning up at him. "Of course, I knew you would." She reached out and fingered the gold star pinned to John's chest. "And sheriff too." She let go of the badge and smiled. "I don't suppose I could interest you in a drink?"
John had never intended on becoming sheriff. Never meant to do more than live out his retirement in peace and quiet. He doubted he'd have either. Yet somehow he was certain Gil would approve. He took a deep breath and smiled. "Don't mind if I do."