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"This has changed everything," said Peter Nordbo.

"Yah. Obviously," answered Robert Saxtorph. "Damn. God damn."

He had jumped from his chair on hearing the news. Now he sat back down, heavily in spite of the light gravity. For a moment his gaze went from the man behind the desk, outward, as if in search of help.

He found no more than beauty. The main office of Saxtorph & Nordbo lay near the top of a building which, although on the edge of town, rose tall. One window held sight of the roofs, towers, steeples, and traffic of Munchen. The other gave on green countryside, scattered homes and groves, a distant range of hills blue against a blue sky. Alpha Centauri A spilled morning radiance across it. B was not yet visible and, currently close to maximum separation, would shine only as the brightest of the stars. A flight of rosewings passed across a snowy cloud. Kind of like wild geese, he thought vaguely, but sunrise-colored. Not that I've ever seen wild geese, except on a screen. Yes, Wunderland's still a lovely world, as alive as Earth used to be before people screwed her up.

"It would not have been a particularly profitable charter for us," said Nordbo.

Saxtorph's burly frame swung around to confront the gray-bearded face. "No," he admitted harshly, "but Dorcas and me, how we lusted to go! What a bodacious spectacle! And the publicity would've been worth more than the money," to the single privately owned hyperdrive craft in known space, competing with the lines of half a dozen governments.

"That has become worse than worthless."


"I've had time to think this over, you know." Saxtorph and his crew had been en route from Jinx with a load of organics cheaper to grow there and haul here than to synthesize. Centaurian industry hadn't fully recovered from the long kzin occupation. Maybe—his mind wandered again for a second—it never would, but concentrate instead on whole new kinds of enterprise. Which ought to leave room for Rover to ply her trade.

But he didn't want her always to be just a tramp freighter. She'd been more. He'd left with his head full of the wonderful discovery the astronomers had made, the fact that an expedition to go for a close look was being organized as fast as possible, and the near-promise that his ship would carry it. She'd proven she could survive pretty terrible surprises, she'd have no other commitments, and Nordbo was closing the deal. It helped that the headquarters of the Interworld Space Commission was handy, right in this same system; he'd gotten on friendly terms with key bureaucrats.

If only the engineers had miniaturized hyperwave transmitters enough that a ship could hold one, Saxtorph thought, not for the first time. Then: What'd have been the use? I'd've gotten the bad news sooner, that's all.

"In der Tat," Nordbo went on, briefly reverting to Wunderland's chief language, "I saw at once that the ISC would forbid you to go, and forestalled them by offering to cancel the contract myself. It was the responsible thing to do, anyway."

"Are you sure?" Saxtorph challenged almost involuntarily.

"Yes. You will be too, once you've swallowed your disappointment." Nordbo sighed. "Robert, we agreed when I became your partner, Rover will steer clear of any volume of space where there's a significant chance of your encountering kzinti. You destroyed their base at the ancient star and uncovered the secret that they now have the hyperdrive. You killed a naval crew of theirs at the black hole—"

"Self-defense," Saxtorph snapped. "Both times, it was them or us, and we didn't start the fracas. The second time, it was Tyra also."

"You needn't tell me."

Saxtorph's massive shoulders slumped a bit. "Sorry. I got carried away. . . . Yah. Aside from the few of them amongst us, probably every kzin alive would cheerfully die to collect my scalp." He straightened. "But, hey, do they have to know it's Rover? Change the ID code, disguise the body lines, give her a new paint job."

Nordbo smiled wryly. "Forever the optimist, aren't you? No, much too risky. We'd certainly lose our insurance."

"Uh-huh," Saxtorph must agree. "Seeing as how they'd be in a tiny danger of having to pay up."

"The danger would not be tiny, and it would be to you and yours, Robert."

Dorcas, Saxtorph thought. Her, and everything we've shared all these years, and the kids we still hope to have someday. Not to mention Kam, Carita, and Buck. And any passengers.

"The kzinti say their expedition will be strictly scientific, like ours, employing simply a transport and a few auxiliaries," Nordbo continued. "But everybody knows that will be a naval transport with at least some armament. If they learned Rover had come, as they might very well— No, it would be too much to expect of kzinti, not to attack."

Saxtorph surrendered. "Okay. Okay. You've gotten through this thick skull of mine. You're right." He rallied his spirit. "What'll we do instead?"

Nordbo smiled afresh, warmly. "The coin has a bright side. Because I saved the ISC embarrassment, I was able to drive a bargain. They naturally prefer our names never be associated with this. So . . . we keep silence. In return, we have a commission to bring several special cargoes to the puppeteers' tradepoint and distribute the exchange goods to four different human planets."

Joy flared. "Holy Christ! Clear to there!"

"And well paid. With a clause that will allow us to develop the route further for ourselves if we choose and the puppeteers are willing."

"Pete," Saxtorph declared, "I take every hard thought about you back. I apologize, I heap sthondat dung on my head, I adore. You're flat-out a genius."

A parallel gladness: How grandly this guy's gotten over his decades of exile, a kzin prisoner, and the death of his son. Even though I got the reasons for it made an official secret, he knew, he knows. He threw himself into our partnership to escape. Oh, he did a lot more than furnish some capital we badly needed, he hadn't lost his skill at handling people either, but it was an escape. In the three years since, however— He and his new wife seem like being about as happy as Dorcas and me. And now he's wangled this for us.

"Aw, shucks," said Nordbo. "Isn't that your American expression?"

"Your triumph calls for a drink, followed by unbridled celebration." And, Saxtorph thought, what happens at the cannibal star will be fun to watch when the databases arrive home. We'll've been having real-time adventures just as much fun, or maybe more.

He took forth his pipe and tobacco pouch. "First, though, fill me in, will you? Who's going to carry the mission?"

"I helped arrange that too," Nordbo told him. "A little reshifting of schedules made the Freuchen available."

"Oh, fine. She is mainly for exploration—done good work in the past... A tad crowded, maybe, for an expedition like this, with the tonne of gear I imagine they'll want to take."

"They'll have ample extra room. A naval vessel will escort them."

Saxtorph grinned. "Well, well. The ISC's being smart for a change. Nothing `provocative,' no, never; but the kitty-cats won't be tempted to touch off an `incident' and claim afterward it was our side's fault."

Nordbo nodded. "That's the unspoken idea. Nobody wants a fight, myself least."

"The Freuchen . . . Yah, the establishment, scientists and politicians both, owe us one, over and above the puppeteer contract. They owe you, rather."

Nordbo gave his friend a steady look. "I cashed in that part of it. Which is why I'm especially relieved by their having an escort."


"Tyra's going along."


"She was after me about it from the first. A writer by trade, and what a story to tell! I managed to make her assignment part of the bargain, and didn't suppose you would object. Not but what they won't get their money's worth. She'll make the public love that science."

"Well, yes, she always was a venturesome sort. Not strange, seeing she's your daughter." And can wind you around her finger, Saxtorph said silently. As she damn near did me, till she decided not to finish the job. I've never said anything to you or anybody. Nor did I stay regretful. Dorcas and me do belong together.

He knew how suddenly seriousness could grab hold of the other man. Nordbo generally kept his deepest feelings to himself. But he and Saxtorph had grown close, and from time to time everybody needs somebody who will listen.

"Robert, she's been unhappy. She doesn't let on, she wouldn't, but I can tell. I don't know why. Yes, she's grieved for Ib, side by side with me, but—but that's past and done with. It isn't like her to brood. Is it?" He had missed out on the years when she grew up.

Did our not-quite-affair really hurt her so badly? wondered Saxtorph. I sure never thought that, seeing how she behaved. Afterward—well, friendly when we've met, of course, but in the nature of the case that hasn't been often.

What can I do except wish her everything good?

"No, her style is to get on with her life."

Nordbo steadied. "She's been doing so. It's simply that I felt her heart wasn't altogether in it. Now, I do believe, this prospect, this amazement to see and take part in, I think it's healing her."


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