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This Gun For Hire

By Executrix
Page 2 of 7

3. GETTING TO KNOW THE GENERAL

      Blake had a strong visual image of what Chetwynd-Powell would have to look like: bristling cavalry moustache, ancient pin-striped suit with operable sleeve buttons, handkerchief tucked into the wrist. Talked with a haw-haw voice, black silk umbrella (or at least swagger stick) jammed up his ass.

      Therefore, as Blake's gaze swept the room, he was as disconcerted by the absence of any possible person of that ilk. It was like being Joan of Arc, asked to drop a dime on the Dauphin in palpably Dauphin-challenged premises. But it was obvious who was in charge around here: the fat guy with the badly-cut hair, baggy eyes, and chin collection.

      He lounged in an oversized, overstuffed armchair that wasn't quite big enough, his massive thighs spread, revealing the rubbed inner seams of his none-too-clean gray suit. One hand hovered ominously, threatening to ease himself with a good scratch. A cigar, of the amplitude you would expect of a Hanavanese Freudian symbol, lolled at the corner of his mouth. It was a very good cigar--hand-rolled Hanavas always are.

      "Ta-ra!" this personage said. "Good to see you, Blake. Have a look around the place. Pierre, show 'em their room." A slender young man of graceful carriage--his name tag read Passeceaux, P.--gave a heartrending smile. Light-brown hair tumbled over his forehead, threatening to eclipse one amber eye.

      "Actually, we've brought a teleport bracelet for you," Blake said. "We'd like you to come aboard the Liberator to negotiate. After all, you'll have to inspect the facilities, see if they're suitable."

      "The damned want crème de menthe frappes, Sunshine," Chetwynd-Powell rumbled.

4. MAY WE BORROW YOUR HUSBAND?

      "Very well, then, we'll stay. But I shall call for some reinforcements from my ship."

      "Smashing! I see you brought your conk with you--what's she called, by the way? My three will take her in hand, take her shopping--Sweetheart, get anything you like, put it on my tab--go and get a massage, get their faces done, whatever girls do."

      Jenna struggled to keep her face composed. The crew's rules of war, arrived at after endless debate (well, arrived at by Blake saying things at length, Avon taking exception to them at greater length, and everyone doing what Blake had said in the first place anyway), called for playing up and playing along with whatever happened.

      By the look of the three bimbos who glided up in welcome, it would be much easier to keep a straight face after their beauty parlor session. It would indeed be hard to move a muscle behind all that plaster. And wouldn't it be wonderful to walk right past a Federation security scanner and be rendered unrecognizable?

      "Avon, Vila, come on over," Blake told his wrist. "Mr. Chetwynd-Powell wants to conduct the discussion here. Cally, Gan, keep in close orbit."

      A few minutes later (time enough for a quick change, a weapons check, and accumulation of a few small items that might be needed on the road) they appeared, slightly out of synch with the white lines drawn around them. No one seemed to notice Vila much, which was all right with him.

      Avon wore the leather trousers--the somewhat less tight ones, which fit over the boots which he thought he might need to put in. And the jacket with, as of that point in time, the most metallic bits and bobs attached to it. Then he looked at Blake, a gaze of such patent adoration and blatant provocation that he might as well have had a pink triangle badge pinned to his jacket.

      Oh. He did. Blake flinched when he saw it.

      "Brought the muscle this time," said Chetwynd-Powell. "Not my place to tell you how to run your mob, but I wouldn't feel awfully safe if my back was only being watched by a bender like yon wrapped in the bin liner." Even Blake flinched at this uncharitable description of the Wardrobe Room's most luxurious black leather gear.

      "For you to get to him, I'd have to move over, and I'm going to stay right here," Avon said, looking directly at Jenna who was providentially located in eyeshot.

      "Carries a big gun, but. Give it over, Sunny Jim."

      Avon turned to Blake. "Commander?"

      Blimey, I'm getting my Solstice present early this year, Blake thought. "Yes, all right, we're all friends here. Let him have it--that is, put your gun in the gun locker."

      "Go round to the kitchen, boys. The housekeeper always has a pint and a pasty for the chauffeurs and that."

      Blake nodded imperceptibly, and they left. Vila memorized for later reference the blaze of Avon's eyes and the set of the teeth just visible through infinitesimally parted lips.

      "What exactly is it you want us to do?"

      "Little job of carriage," Chetwynd-Powell said. "We've sold all the pieces for building a hovercraft factory to JaVitz, it's an asteroid out in Sector Eight. They know they're not supposed to have non-regulated personal transport, but they reckon they're too far out of the Federation's way for them to get caught doing it.

      They've got factories for clothes and dishes and such, light industry, so they know what an assembly line is, and their fossil fuel and electrical supplies are stable enough. So what you're supposed to do is carry the crates over--it's just a couple of days ship time--load them down planet, jam the cables into wherever you jam cables, and break the bottle of champagne when the first hovvie dribbles off the line."

      "You're paying a lot for a pantechnicon," Blake said.

      "Oh, aye, them on JaVitz could be wrong about how little the Federation cares. Since you've the fastest ship, and you're not just an engineer but a bad lad--or other way round--you seemed like the best for the job. But take it or leave it, it's nowt to me."

      Must be owt, Blake thought. Hundred thousand credits, half in advance--and, yes, the transfer did clear, we checked. But it could be interesting, shooting the federation in its pocketbook. Perhaps the way to show people that they need freedom is by showing them how the Federation has oppressed them economically as well. Maybe the man who can buy his own hovercraft will also start circulating Tarriel Cell-compatible political manifestoes.

 

5. IT'S A BATTLEFIELD

      You couldn't tell what the names on their badges were, they had a bit of elastic stretched over the name plate. They did not, on first impression, appear to have much that was novel and interesting to say about Wittgenstein.

      "Is it true what Fat Andy said? You're queer?"

      "Yes," Avon said. "But no free samples are being distributed this month."

      And now one of them was just behind Avon, the other in front, closer than he liked.

      "Can't see how your boss puts up with it either. If I was him, I wouldn't fancy going through the door with you behind me."

      "No, you wouldn't," Avon said. "Truly."

      It seemed necessary to prove this, which he did by bringing the heel of his boot down, with extreme prejudice to small bones, on the foot of the man behind him, and using the throat of the one in front as a resistance device for his left forearm. He kicked each fallen body just once, in the ribs, and quit while he was still on the perilous edge of control. Dammit, how many fistfights had he purchased with that badge? It wasn't coming off for the benefit of anyone like them, but he was tired of the bother already.

      Vila emerged from the corner next to the huge industrial refrigerator. He opened the refrigerator, took out a couple of bottles of whatever looked the stickiest and sickliest, and poured the contents over the fallen heroes and into a puddle between them.

      "Wet floors. Falling hazards. Someone ought to contact the Work Safety and Health Authority. I mean, you did slip and fall, didn't you? Two hard men like you couldn't get done over by a poofter."

      Avon sketched a salute in recompense for the somewhat belated show of support.

      In their line of work, it was always advisable to raid a well-stocked refrigerator, you never knew when the next meal was going to come along. But, on the other hand, it seemed more advisable to take the plates and bottles somewhere else.

      Mr. Passeceaux checked his clipboard, and discovered that they had been assigned a room over the hovercraft hanger. It wasn't such a bad room, as servants' quarters go. Fortunately the institutional green paint couldn't depress them, they felt fairly bad already. It didn't matter how small the closet was, or that the drawers in the chest of drawers stuck, because they hadn't brought any spare clothes.

      Paradise enow. Avon threw his jacket, badge and all, over the back of one of the chairs. Vila was entranced by his luck--shirtsleeve sightings two days running! This time, the shirt was dark blue.

      Avon had finished slicing bread and cold meat (Vila thought he could identify roast beef and boiled mutton, but you never knew) and arranging them on plates, and gave a gruntlet of pleasure. "Have a taste, Vila," he said, holding out a kitchen knife with three wedges of tomato lying on their sides. "This is the best fresh tomato I've had since--well, I don't know when." Oh just stab me, make a day of it, Vila thought.

      "You can have the top bunk. I'm not going to get into another fight with anyone else today."

      Neither of them slept much. Vila knew what Avon was thinking about but Avon didn't know what Vila was thinking about.

      


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