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His real name was Carlos Mendoza, but it had been so many years since he used it that it seemed almost alien to him.

Here on the Inner Frontier, among the sparsely-populated worlds that lay between Man's sprawling Democracy and the galactic core, men changed names with the ease, and occasionally the frequency, that their brothers in the Democracy changed clothes. Mendoza had had many occupations in his sixty-one years, some of which he wished to forget and some that he wished his enemies would forget, and he had had almost as many names, but the one that had stuck was the Iceman.

There were people who said he was the Iceman because he had once been the ruler of a planet totally covered by a mile-thick glacier. Others said no, that he got the name because he was a cold-blooded killer. A few suggested that he possessed a rare disease that threatened to kill him by lowering his body temperature, and that's why he had finally settled on the hot, desert world of Last Chance.

The Iceman didn't care what people thought about the genesis of his name. In fact, there wasn't much that he did care about. Money, of course; and the power he exercised as the owner of the End of the Line, the only tavern on Last Chance—but over the years he had lost interest in most other things.

Except gossip.

Miners, traders, explorers, adventurers, and bounty hunters would stop on Last Chance to refuel their ships, or lay in their supplies, or register their claims, or occasionally to wait for their mail or their rewards to catch up with them, and they would come to the End of the Line, and they would talk. The Iceman never asked any questions, never volunteered any information, but he listened intently, and once in a long while he would hear some tidbit that momentarily brought a touch of animation to his impassive face. When that happened he would disappear for a week or a month, after which he would return to Last Chance as suddenly as he had left. Then he would sit in the bar and listen to more gossip, more tales of adventure and derring-do, of fortunes made and fortunes lost, of battles won and empires fallen, his face expressionless.

Those who cared about him—and they were few and far between—occasionally asked him precisely what he was hoping to hear, what it was that he went off to find on his rare excursions. He would politely sidestep their questions, for despite his reputation he was a courteous man, and shortly thereafter they would see him sitting at another table, listening to another traveler's tale.

He was not a physically impressive man. He was an inch or two below normal height, and he carried about thirty pounds of excess weight, and his hair was thinning on the top and white on the sides. He walked with a decided limp; most people assumed that he had a prosthetic leg, but no one ever asked him and he never volunteered any information about it. His voice was neither deep nor rich, though when he spoke on Last Chance it carried a ring of absolute authority that very few men challenged (and none ever challenged it twice.)

He was known throughout the Inner Frontier, but nobody knew quite what he had done to acquire his notoriety. He had killed some men, of course, but that was hardly sufficient to establish a reputation on the lawless frontier worlds. It was rumored that he had once worked for the Democracy in some covert capacity, but by its very nature nothing was known about his job. Once, fourteen years ago, he had disappeared from Last Chance for a number of months, and word had it that he had been responsible for the deaths of quite a few bounty hunters, but no one could verify it and the details were so vague that very few people put much credence in the story.

There was one woman who had heard the story and believed it, and after many false starts she finally tracked him down in his refuge on Last Chance, half a galaxy away from the affluent, populous worlds of the Democracy. She was middle-aged, with blue eyes and nondescript, sand-colored hair. Her nose had a small lump at the bridge, as if it had been broken many years ago, and her teeth were too white and too even to be her own.

The End of the Line was filled with the usual crowd of adventurers and misfits, humans and aliens, when she entered it. The aliens—seven Canphorites, a pair of Lodinites, two Domarians, and one each from a trio of races she had never seen before—were clustered together at a number of small tables. Most of them couldn't metabolize the bar's offerings, and were obviously waiting for the large casino, which consisted of some two dozen tables and an equal number of exotic games of chance, to open its doors. A small sign, written in various human and alien languages, announced that that happy moment would occur at sunset.

The heads of a quartet of alien carnivores, each snarling in mute defiance, were positioned above the long hardwood bar, and in a glass case just next to the changemaker was a tattered copy of a poem written by Black Orpheus, the Bard of the Inner Frontier, which he had created and autographed when he had stopped on Last Chance for an evening some two centuries ago.

Twenty humans, some dressed in colorful and expensive garments, others wearing the dull browns and grays of miners and prospectors, stood at the bar or sat at tables. None of them paid her any attention as she entered the tavern, looked around for a moment, and finally approached the bartender.

"I'm looking for a man known as the Iceman," she said. "Is he here?"

The bartender nodded his head. "Right over there, sitting by the window."

"Will he speak to me?" she asked.

The bartender chuckled. "That depends on his mood. But he'll listen to you."

She thanked him and walked over to the Iceman's table, giving the aliens a wide berth as she did so.

"May I join you?" she asked.

"Pull up a chair, Mrs. Bailey," he said.

She looked surprised. "You know who I am?"

"No," he answered. "But I know your name."


"You had to identify yourself when you requested landing coordinates," said the Iceman. "Nobody lands on Last Chance without my approval."

"I see," she said, sitting down. She stared across the table. "I can't believe that I've finally found you!"

"I wasn't lost, Mrs. Bailey," he said expressionlessly.

"Perhaps not, but I've been looking for you for more than four years."

"And what's so important that you would spend four years of your life trying to find me?"

"My name is Bettina Bailey," she began.

"I know."

"Does it mean anything to you?"

"Should it?"

"If the name Bailey doesn't, then I've wasted an enormous amount of time."

"I've never heard of anyone called Bettina Bailey," he replied noncommittally.

"I've heard stories—rumors, really, to be honest—that you may have known my daughter."

"Go on," said the Iceman.

"Her name is Penelope."

The Iceman pulled out a small cigar. "What did you hear?"

"I heard that you knew her." Bettina Bailey paused, studying the Iceman's face. "I've even heard that she spent some time on Last Chance."

"That was fourteen years ago, Mrs. Bailey," said the Iceman, lighting his cigar. "I haven't seen her since." He shrugged. "For all I know, she's dead now."

Bettina Bailey stared unblinking at him. "If we're talking about the same girl, you know that's impossible."

The Iceman returned her stare for a long moment, as if considering his answer. Finally he took another puff of his cigar and nodded. "We're talking about the same girl."

"She would be twenty-two years old now."

"That would be about right," agreed the Iceman.

Bettina Bailey paused again. "I've heard other rumors, too," she said at last.

"Such as?"

"That she's living with aliens."

"An alien," the Iceman corrected her.

"Then you know where she is?"

He shook his head. "No. I just know who she was with the last time I saw her."

"I've also heard that you've spent a lot of time looking for her," continued Bettina Bailey.

He stared impassively at her and made no answer.

"And that you know more about her than any other man alive," she continued.

"It's possible," he agreed.

"It's more than possible. It's a fact."

"All right, it's a fact. Now what?"

"I want my daughter back."

"Pardon my pointing it out, Mrs. Bailey, but it took you long enough to come to that decision."

"I have been looking for her for sixteen years." She paused. "She was taken from me in the Democracy. The Democracy encompasses more than ten thousand worlds; it took me more than a decade, and most of my late husband's money, to discover that she was no longer there, but was on the Inner Frontier."

"She was on the Inner Frontier fourteen years ago, Mrs. Bailey," said the Iceman. "She could be anywhere now—the Inner Frontier, the Rim, the Spiral Arm, the Outer Frontier, even back in the Democracy. It wouldn't be difficult for someone with her abilities to hide from anyone who was looking for her."

"She's on the Inner Frontier," repeated Bettina Bailey adamantly.

He stared at her, unable to totally conceal his interest. "How do you know?"

"When you are willing to be open and frank with me, I will respond in kind," she replied. "For the moment, you will have to take my word that I know where she is."

He paused for a long moment. "All right," he said at last. "You know where she is."

She nodded. "And I want her back."

"And you want her back," he repeated. "Why have you come to me? Why don't you just go to wherever she is and take her home?"

"It's not that simple," she said. "She may not recognize me—and even if she does, she's been with aliens for most of her life. She may not want to come back with me."

"She's an adult by now," said the Iceman. "That's her choice to make."

"I'm willing to let her make it," said Bettina Bailey. "But away from the influence of the aliens."

"There's only one alien that I know about."

She shook her head. "She's on an alien planet."

"Which one?"

"I'll tell you when we have an agreement."

"What kind of agreement?" asked the Iceman.

"I want you to bring her back to me."

"If you don't think she'll go with you, why do you think she'll come with me?"

"I told you—I've studied you. You've had experience dealing with aliens and operating on the Inner Frontier. If you need help, you'll know what kind to get and where to get it."

The Iceman stared at her thoughtfully. "It could be very expensive, Mrs. Bailey."

"How expensive?"

"A million Maria Theresa dollars now, another million when the job is done."

"Maria Theresa dollars?" she repeated, frowning. "I thought they were only in use in the Corvus system. What's wrong with credits?"

"We don't have much faith in the longevity of the Democracy out here, Mrs. Bailey," answered the Iceman. "We have even less faith in its currency. Credits are unacceptable. If you can't get the Maria Theresa dollars, I'll take double the amount in New Stalin rubles."

"I'll get the dollars," she replied.

"How soon?"

"I can have them transferred here in three days' time."

"Then I'll set the wheels in motion three days from now," said the Iceman.

"What do you mean: set the wheels in motion?"

"I'll select who I want to find your daughter."

"But I thought you would be going."

He shook his head. "She knows me, Mrs. Bailey—and I don't think she'd be too happy to see me again."

"But I chose you precisely because she does know you!"

"That's not necessarily an advantage with your daughter," he said dryly. "Now, where is she?"

Bettina Bailey was silent for a moment. Then she shrugged. "She's on Alpha Crepello III."

"Never heard of it."

"It's in the Quinellus Cluster."

"And what makes you so sure she's there?"

She leaned forward intently. "We both know that my daughter has a rare talent."

"Go on."

"Word has gotten back to Deluros VIII that there is a human female on Alpha Crepello III. The public isn't supposed to know about her, but I've bribed sources within the government. No one seems to know if this female is in the employ of the aliens who inhabit Alpha Crepello III, or if she is their prisoner, but she is known as the Oracle." She paused. "If I were to choose a name for Penelope, I couldn't choose a more accurate one than that."

"And that's the sum total of your knowledge?" asked the Iceman. "No description? No communication with her or anyone who's dealt with her?"

"Just that," answered Bettina Bailey. "The Alpha Crepello system isn't part of the Democracy, and has almost no commerce with it. It took me two years to ascertain that the Oracle was a human, and another two to determine that she was a female."

The Iceman stared at her. "Do you know the odds against this being your daughter, Mrs. Bailey?"

"I've spent sixteen years piecing together these bits of information," she replied. "I could die of old age before I came up with concrete proof." She paused. "Do we have a deal?"

For just an instant the interest he had tried so hard to conceal flashed across his face. Then, just as quickly, the impassive mark was back in place.

"We have a deal," said the Iceman.



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