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Chapter 1

Sister Sue, John Grimes commanding, had made a relatively uneventful voyage from New Sparta to Earth and was now berthed at Port Woomera. But nobody seemed to be in a hurry to take delivery of her cargo, a quite large consignment of the spices for which New Sparta had become famous among Terran gourmets. This didn't worry Grimes much. His ship, of which he was owner as well as master, was on time charter to the Interstellar Transport Commission and until her holds were empty she would remain on pay. What did worry Grimes was that the charter had expired and that the Commission had indicated that it might not be renewed. Another cause for worry was that Billy Williams, his chief officer for many years and, for quite a while, during the term of Grimes' appointment as governor for Liberia, relieving master, was taking a long overdue spell of planet leave, returning to his home world, Austral. With him had gone the Purser/Catering Officer Magda Granadu, leaving Grimes with a shipful of comparative strangers, young men and women who had not been among her complement when he had first commissioned her. So he had to find a replacement for Magda and one for Billy Williams. The second officer, young Kershaw, was, in Grimes' opinion, too inexperienced a spaceman for promotion. It would be many years before he would be capable of acting as a reliable second in command.

Meanwhile Grimes had no option but to hang around the ship like a bad smell. Until he had seen which ways the many cats were going to jump he could not afford to leave her in the fumbling hands of young Kershaw. And he wanted, badly, to get away himself for at least a few days, to revisit his parents' home in Alice Springs. The old man was getting on now, although still churning out his historical novels. And his mother, Matilda, although one of those apparently ageless women, blessed at birth with a good bone structure, would be wanting to hear a firsthand account of her son's adventures as governor of Liberia and then on New Sparta.

He was beginning to wonder if he should make the not too long walk from the commercial spaceport to the Survey Service Base, there to pay a courtesy call on Rear Admiral Damien. Even though not many people knew that Grimes was back in the Service with the rank of captain on the reserve list, everybody knew that he was an ex-Survey Service regular officer and that at one stage of his career his superior had been Damien, then Commodore Damien, who had been Officer Commanding Couriers at the Lindisfarne Base. (But it was also common knowledge that young Grimes, as a courier captain, had been Damien's bête noir.)

Still, Damien owed him something. He had acted as the Rear Admiral's cat's paw during the El Doradan piracy affair, and on Liberia and, most recently, on New Sparta. The Survey Service pulled heavy Gs with the Interstellar Transport Commission. If Damien dropped a few hints in the right quarters the Commission would either renew the New Sparta time charter or find some other lucrative employment for Sister Sue.

So, after a not very satisfactory breakfast—the temporary, in-port-duties-only catering officer thought it beneath her dignity to cater to the captain's personal tastes and could murder even so simple a dish as eggs and bacon—Grimes got dressed in his best uniform, his own uniform with the Far Traveler Couriers cap badge and crested buttons. Then he sent for the second officer.

He said, "I shall be going ashore for a while, Mr. Kershaw. Should anything crop up I shall be with Rear Admiral Damien, at the Base."

The lanky, sullen young man with the overly long hair asked, "Is there any word, sir, about a replacement for Mr. Williams? After all, I'm doing chief officer's duties and only getting second's pay . . . "

I'm doing the chief officer's duties, thought Grimes indignantly. But he said, "The Astronauts' Guild have the matter in hand. As you know, I require Master Astronaut's qualifications for my chief officer. Unluckily you have only a First Mate's certificate."

Kershaw flushed. He knew that Grimes knew that he had already sat twice for his Master's ticket and failed dismally each time. He decided to drop the subject.

"When will you be back, sir?"

"That all depends upon the Rear Admiral. He might invite me to lunch, although that's unlikely. Or I might run into some old shipmates at the Base."

"It's a pity that you ever left the Service, sir," almost sneered Kershaw.

"Isn't it?" said Grimes cheerfully.


He walked down the ramp from the after airlock, puffing his foul pipe. The morning was fine although, with a southerly breeze straight from the Antarctic, quite cool. There were only a few ships in port—two of the Commission's Epsilon Class tramps (Sister Sue had started her working life as one such), a somewhat larger Dog Star Line freighter and, gleaming like a huge, metallic skep in the bright sunlight, some of the bee people who were her crew flying lazily about her, a Shaara vessel. (Those bastards are getting everywhere these days, thought Grimes disapprovingly. Once he had quite liked the Shaara but various events had caused him to change his attitude.)

All these ships, he saw, were working cargo. They all had gainful employment. His Sister Sue did not.

He identified himself to the marine guard at the main gate to the Base, was admitted without question. (Fame, or notoriety, had its advantages.) He looked with rather wistful interest at the Survey Service ships in their berths. There were two Serpent Class couriers, the so-called "flying darning needles." Grimes' first command—how many years ago?—had been one of these little ships. There was a Star Class destroyer. There was a cartographic ship, similar to Discovery, the mutiny aboard which vessel had been the main cause of his somewhat hasty resignation from the Survey Service.

But he hadn't come here to take a leisurely stroll down memory lane. He had come here to confront Rear Admiral Damien, to make a more or less formal request that this gentleman use his influence to obtain further employment, preferably another time charter, for Sister Sue. After all he, Grimes, was useful to the Survey Service even though very few people knew that he was back in their employ. And surely a willing—well, for some of the time—laborer was worthy of his hire.

He approached the main office block, passed another marine sentry. He went to the receptionist's desk where a smart little female ensign was on duty. The girl looked at him curiously, noting the details of his uniform. Obviously she was not one of those who knew Grimes by name and reputation. But she was young, young. There may have been giants in those days, the days when Grimes himself was young, but this pert wench would never have heard of them. (Yet. But legends persist and, almost certainly, there would be those on the Base who would be happy to regale her with all sorts of tales, true, half-true and untrue, about that notorious misfit John Grimes.)

"Sir?" she asked politely.

"Could I see Admiral Damien, please?"

"Is he expecting you, sir?"

"No. But he'll see me."

"Whom shall I say is calling?"

"John Grimes. Captain John Grimes."

"Wait, please, Captain Grimes."

She pressed buttons and the little screen of her telephone console came alive. Grimes shifted position so he could look over the ensign's shoulder. He saw Damien's face—that prominent nose, the thin lips, the yellowish skin stretched taut over sharp bones—take form. Old Skull Face never changes, he thought. And Damien could see him in his own screen, standing behind the girl. There was a flicker of recognition in the cold, gray eyes.

"Admiral, sir," said the girl, "there is a . . . "

"I know, Ms. Pemberthy. There is a Captain Grimes to see me. Or a Commodore Grimes. Or His ex-Excellency ex-Governor Grimes . . . All right, Grimes. I was wondering when you would condescend to come and see me. You know where I live. I'm still in the office where you were debriefed after you came in from New Sparta—when was it, now? three months ago?—and now you're back from New Sparta again. But you won't be going back there for quite a while, if ever . . . . As you know full well I always keep my finger on the pulse of things." Then, to the girl, "That's all, Ms. Pemberthy. Captain Grimes can find his own way up. He has only to follow the signs. Even Blind Freddy and his dog could do that much."

The screen went blank.

The girl turned to stare at Grimes.

"The admiral seems to know you, sir. But what is your rank, captain or commodore? And are you an Excellency?"

"I was," Grimes told her. "And I was, at one time, commodore of a squadron of privateers . . . "

"Privateers, sir? Aren't they some sort of pirates?"

"No," Grimes told her firmly.

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