“I want you to take me to where the pirates are,” James Joyce Jameson, famous author and Holovision raconteur said, as he took a dainty sip of aperitif from a crystal goblet. “I’m told you know Esteban Romero personally.”
Frank Carson sat back in his chair and gazed across the table at the small, thin, wiry looking man sitting across from him. They were in a space port lounge orbiting the planet Tulon. Through the window behind Jameson, Carson could see a giant oil tanker just breaking free from the planet’s gravity as it hauled another shipment of Tulon Crude. People were madly killing each other back on planet Earth, and they needed the oil to keep the machines of war running, so they could go on living and killing.
“Why do you want to meet Romero?” Carson asked. “He’s a dangerous man.”
“Research,” Jameson said. “As you may know, I’ve written several pirate novels. Best sellers. Perhaps you’ve read one of them?”
“Can’t say I have,” Carson said. “I don’t read today’s best sellers. Books aren’t what they used to be. I prefer the old classics.”
“All those words?” Jameson said. “How do you have the time? So bothersome. The new Brain Wave Books are much more convenient.” Jameson polished off his drink and poured another from a decanter. “Publishing has changed a great deal in the last 150 years,” he said. “It started in the early 21st Century with e-books. They eventually replaced hard copy, bound books. Of course the transition was made possible by the fact that people really didn’t have time to read. And with the average attention span dwindling to about nine milliseconds, Flash Fiction became the rage. Whole stories in 500 words. They eventually got them down to one word. But that only worked because of Brain Fusion technology—the mini, computerized Brain Book Reading Unit.
“For example, most romance novels now contain only one word: LUST. But the reading unit wirelessly transmits an entire tale of lust to the brain in half a nano-second, giving the reader a complete erotic experience. My book, Pirates on the Rim of the Dark World, has only one word: Treachery! But the unit sends a complete tale of treachery on the outer rim in such vivid detail you can taste the ozone in the air.”
“From just one word?”
“It’s the data encrypted into the reading unit as backup that makes the difference. That’s where the real work of an author lies.”
“Fascinating,” Carson said. “What do you mean `research’?”
Jameson set his glass down and leaned forward confidentially. “To be frank, Mr. Carson, my books, well written as they are, are only the purest of fiction. When I began them I knew nothing of pirates or space travel. All I knew was that a pirate is a romantic character. A swashbuckler. A man of derring-do. Everything I knew about pirates came from other books.”
“Is that what you think Romero is? A romantic hero of some kind?”
“He certainly cuts a dashing figure,” Jameson said.
“That’s what the media made of him. The truth as always lies in a different direction. I wouldn’t call Esteban Romero a hero. But he does have a certain code he lives by and he’s not like most of the others. At least he and his Black Vulture crew attack only League ships. The other space scum who call themselves pirates prey on unarmed ships. They hijack ships, cargo, crew, and hold them for ransom. Space pirates in general are the lowest form of life in the Universe, Mr. Jameson. The ones working around the Tarnesian belt raid villages and kidnap young girls, some 12-13 years old and sell them as sex slaves— that is the ones they haven’t raped or killed themselves. Your romantic notions of piracy couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Jameson cupped his hand around the glass goblet on the table. “Nevertheless, Mr. Carson, I have to meet Romero. You see, my editor barely green lighted my last book. She said there wasn’t enough authentic detail. She can be a bitch when she wants to be. I need to get to where the pirates are. See what they’re like, watch how they operate. Then I’ll be able to feed better data into the reading unit and come out with a better novel.”
“Tell you what, Mr. Jameson,” Carson said. “Why don’t I save you a lot of time and expense. I’ll give you the one word that would be perfect for your next book.”
“What word is that?”
Carson started to get up.
“Please, Mr. Carson,” Jameson said. “Don’t leave. Really, I’m in a bind. I have to do this, or my publisher will cancel my contract. Sales of my books have started falling off. They won’t stay with a loser. I understand you’re able to move around Romero and his men unmolested. You saved his life once.”
“That was a long time ago, before he turned renegade.”
“That’s all right. I am prepared, Mr. Carson, to pay you one million Universal Credits to safely take me to Romero and back. I only need a few days with him. A million UC’s for just a few days of your time. What do you say?”
Carson gave the writer a cold look. Almost a look of contempt. The word popinjay popped into Carson’s mind. He thought about the offer. Maybe a dose of reality would do this popinjay some good, he thought. Then he wondered where he got the word popinjay from.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll take you. But two days. That’s all I can spare.”
“Excellent,” Jameson said. He picked up his goblet. “Let’s drink a toast.”
Carson picked up his glass of Synth-Scotch.
“To piracy,” Jameson said.
“To authenticity,” Carson replied.
Later the two men climbed aboard Carson’s Gull Wing Strato-Sled, The Corvette, which sat on the spaceport’s landing dock. Jameson carried a small duffle bag, and Carson stowed it behind the seat. He did a quick rundown of the take-off checklist, started the engine, and they lifted off the runway. Once the coordinates for their destination were punched into the onboard navigator, he hit the launch sequence button, and, with a flash of blue light, they entered Hyper-Space. Carson let go of the controls and set the autopilot on.
Jameson took a Mini-Comm-Port out of his bag. He held the recording device out closer to Carson.
“I’d like to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind,” he said. “You know, get some background details?”
Carson frowned. “I’m not going to talk into that thing,” he said.
Jameson turned it off. “Very well,” he said with hint of exasperation in his voice. “Then just tell me, how you came to save Romero’s life?”
“You want the whole dog and pony show, eh?” Carson shook his head. “I guess that’s what you’re paying me for.” He shifted in his seat and stared out The Corvette’s windshield as he began. “We were both pretty young at the time,” Carson said. “I was in a bar one night in Carbonville, down on Tulon. A poker game. I didn’t know Romero. He was just another privateer having a night on the town. He was good at cards. Cleaned everyone at the table out, including me. One of the players didn’t like that much. When Romero picked up his winnings, the fellow pulled a laser knife behind his back. I shot it out of his hand before he could throw it. Romero was grateful. Little did I know that night I saved the life of a man who would be wanted throughout the galaxy for some of the worst crimes ever committed.”
“Are all the charges against him true?” Jameson asked. “I always thought the League just took whatever case they couldn’t solve and blamed it on him.”
“There’s some truth to that,” Carson said. “The League definitely has it in for him. They’re nothing more than a bunch of corrupt politicians. It’s kind of a private war between Romero and The League. But they’ve got all the power.”
Jameson was quiet for moment. Carson sensed something, some inner tension, almost fear, within the writer. Jameson swallowed hard. “Yeah, they’ve got all the power,” he said.
Two hours later The Corvette slammed out of Hyper-Drive and Carson saw the purple sphere of the planet Sarna floating in black space ahead. They had journeyed to the back end of the Jerulian Star System,
“This is it?” Jameson said. “This is where he’s been hiding? Of all the places!”
“It’s mostly jungle,” Carson said. “Impenetrable. You can hide anything down there from the League’s Search Beams.”
There was a sudden blinding flash of light, a deafening explosion and The Corvette rocked. Carson cut off the auto pilot and brought the bucking ship under control. Ahead two small Tri-wing fighters seemed to slide into view from nowhere, as they let their Invisi-Shields down.
“Romero’s ships,” Carson said, activating The Corvette’s laser weapons system.
“Stop where you are,” a female voice ordered. Carson hit the intercom.
“We’re friends,” Carson said. “My name is Carson. Where’s Captain Romero? I’ve come to pay your captain a visit.”
There was a brief pause. “Turn your weapons off,” the woman said. “Follow us unless you want to be blasted into vapor where you stand.”
One of the ships began a dive toward Sarna and Carson followed. The second ship waited for The Corvette to pass and followed close on its tail. As they lowered toward the planet, Carson wondered who the woman in the ship was and what had happened to Romero.
It was near dusk on Sarna, as Carson followed the pirate ship down to a small clearing cut out of the dense purple jungle that covered the planet.
“I’ve seen purple plants before, but never a whole purple jungle,” Jameson said, gaping out the window. Giant trees towered in the violet light of twilight, their purple and magenta branches shrouded in a thick blue mist as the last rays of Sarna’s orange sun fell behind the horizon.
“The vegetation is different from what you’re used to. There’s no chlorophyll on Sarna. There’s plenty of rain but not that much sunlight. Enough to make the vegetation grow but not enough for complete photosynthesis. The plants take nourishment more from the water in the soil, which is rich in phosphates. That’s what gives it the purplish color.”
Moments later Carson and Jameson stood with their hands up in the clearing where The Corvette had landed, surrounded by a circle of ten scruffy-looking men. An assortment of weapons were aimed at them. A tall, shapely woman with long auburn hair broke through the circle and walked toward them. She wore a black leather outfit that emphasized every curve of her body and she moved with the slinky grace of a jungle cat.
“Throw your weapon down,” she ordered. “Carefully. Kick it over here.”
Carson used two fingers to remove his blaster from the holster Velcroed to his leg and dropped it on the ground. He kicked it toward her with the toe of his boot.
“Where’s Romero?” he asked. “I’m an old friend of his.”
“Silence!” the woman shouted. “I will ask the questions. What are you doing here? Who are you?”
“My name’s Carson. This is James Joyce Jameson. He’s a writer. A famous author.”
The woman’s brow creased in a deep frown. “A writer? What does a writer want here?”
“Research,” Carson said. “Now if you wouldn’t mind telling Romero we’re here—”
The woman stepped closer to Carson, her angry eyes looking him up and down.
“Esteban is not here,” she said. “I am Lee-la. Esteban’s second in command. I am also the woman he loves. When he is not here, I am in charge.”
“Romero left a woman in charge?” Carson asked incredulously.
The woman’s eyes flashed angrily. “And why not?” There was a flash of movement and suddenly Carson felt the point of a dagger just under his chin. “You find this difficult to believe?”
Carson gulped. “No, ma’am,” he said. “Just surprising, that’s all.”
“You had better watch your tongue, if you would not lose it,” Lee-la said. She lowered the blade and turned to Jameson. “And you. What do you write?”
“I write space pirate novels,” Jameson said. “I asked Mr. Carson to bring me to meet with Captain Romero. I want to talk to him. Interview him for research for my next book.”
The woman gaped at him incredulously. “You came here to make research for a book?” She turned to the men standing around them. “You hear this? This famous author came here to do a book about us. Can you believe anything so foolish? Eh?” She laughed and the men laughed with her.
“Enough!” Lee-la shouted. Her eyes widened and her nostrils flared. She stepped closer to Jameson. “You know what, Mr. Author. I do not believe you, or your friend here. I do not think you came here to write a book about us. No. I think you came here to spy on us. I think you came for the League. I think you wish to betray us to them!”
“No!” Jameson said. “It’s not true.”
“Seize these men,” the woman ordered. “Take them to the stockade. We shall investigate this further.”
Six burly men grabbed the prisoners and marched them across the hearing toward a trail that ran deep into the darkening jungle.
With torches blazing, the ancient city buried in the jungle seemed as much alive as it must have thousands of years ago when the original inhabitants, a lost race half ape-half human, dwelt there. The stone masonry of the buildings and courtyards bespoke of an intelligence, but what had happened to the ancient race that had built the city was now only a mystery.
A small palace, now crumbling but still serviceable, stood in the center of the city, surrounded by smaller buildings in which pirates now lived. Now however, most of the present day inhabitants of Sarna’s lost city stood in the vast chamber that served as a meeting hall. Lee-la sat before the throng on a raised dais in what was once a throne carved from stone. Standing at the base of the dais, Carson looked up at the haughty pirate queen and tried to say something. But the shouts of the motley mob behind him drowned him out.
“Quiet!” Lee-la shouted. “The prisoner is trying to speak. Let us hear what he has to say before we execute him.”
“I was just asking where your captain is,” Carson said. “If we could see him, this whole matter could be cleared up in an instant.”
“Captain Romero is not here,” Lee-la said. “I already told you that.”
“Where is he? When will he be back?”
“He’s on a raiding party,” Lee-la said. “He should have been back days ago. We’ve had no word from him. I think he has run into trouble. League trouble.”
She stood up, her eyes fierce. “But why am I telling you something you probably already know? If you are spies for The League you already know what has happened to him.”
Jameson spoke up. “I assure you, madam, we have nothing whatever to do with the League. I am an author, as I told you. I came here to get to know what pirate life is really like.”
Lee-la stared at him, her black eyes almost amused looking. “You are an absurd character,” she said. She turned to Carson. “How is it you knew how to find us?”
“I’ve been here before,” Carson said. “You weren’t here then. But some of these men must remember me.”
She turned to the crowd. “How about it? Anyone know this man?”
“Aye, Lee-la,” a big, swarthy fellow shouted, stepping forward. “I know him. His name is Carson. He’s a gun for hire. Not much better than a pirate himself.”
The woman looked back at Carson. “Is this true?”
“Part of it,” Carson said. “The gun for hire part.”
She glanced back at the man who had spoken. “Does Captain Romero call him friend?”
“The last time this man was here the Captain told him to get out and that if he ever came back, he’d have him executed. I wouldn’t say that sounds very friendly.”
“It was just a misunderstanding,” Carson said. “If he were here, he’d tell you so himself. He’s probably forgotten all about that.”
“What is this?” Jameson said. “I thought you and he—”
“We are. It was just a little argument we had.”
“That’s enough,” Lee-la said. “I will waste no more time with you. We find you guilty of spying. There can be only one sentence for such a crime. Take them to The Pool of Death!”
The mob roared to life, and the two prisoners found themselves pushed and punched to the floor, where they were bound with ropes, hand and foot. Once they were trussed up, Carson and Jameson were lifted up on the men’s shoulders and carried across the throne room floor and out the front door into the street. The shouting throng, sputtering torches in hand and led by Lee-la, marched down the street and out the front gate of the city. Two moons shone in the black sky above and disappeared as they followed the trail back into the jungle. This they followed, twisting their way through the dense foliage until they came to another small clearing. The men placed their torches in stanchions that had been fashioned out of thick, twisted liana vines all around the periphery of the clearing.
They untied the ropes binding Carson and Jameson’s legs. One of the men picked a fruit growing on one of the trees and tossed it down into the purple floor of the clearing. Carson was astonished when he saw the fruit fall through the clearing floor and water suddenly splashed up. What he had taken for the purple grass common to the planet was actually moss covering what appeared to be a deep pool. Suddenly the water came alive. Half a dozen black, massive, elongated heads jumped up to the surface. Carson stepped back. The pond was full of Croco-saurs. The long-snouted monsters twirled and twisted in the water, angry at being awakened so suddenly.
Carson noticed up ahead a wooden plank stretched out from the floor of the jungle over the pool.
“All right, men,” Lee-la shouted. “These two have been found guilty of spying, and we will now carry out the sentence. Death by the plank!”
Another roar went up into the jungle as the crowd grabbed Carson first and then Jameson. Carson didn’t even try to struggle to free himself. He knew it was futile. His attitude toward death had always been that one day it would come, and when it did, there would be no use fighting the inevitable. Jameson, on the other hand, began screaming, kicking, and biting to get himself free.
In a few moments Carson stood at the edge of the pool, his feet now on the wooden plank that would serve as the path of his last walk.
“Any last words, spy?” Lee-la asked.
“No. Let’s get it over with.”
Jameson erupted in screeches. “Say something, man,” he shouted. “Do something. I hired you to protect me. You were supposed to get me safe passage.”
“You want a refund?”
“Start walking, Carson,” Lee-la ordered. Carson felt something blunt strike him in the back. He turned and saw a man wielding a long pole. He prodded Carson again to move forward. Carson started walking slowly out the length of the plank. It bounced up and down under his weight. He came to the end of the plank and looked down. The vicious reptiles swarmed and made ugly growling, grunting noises, their bloodshot eyes looking up at him hungrily.
Carson could sense the man with the pole ready to make his lunge. In a second it would be all over. Then something loud cracked, a light flashed in the jungle to the right of the pool, and the pole shattered into splinters. The man holding it yelled in surprise.
“Hold it, you scurvy space dogs,” a voice shouted, and a man broke through the dense foliage between the trees. He was a tall, well-proportioned man with a thin black mustache and long dark hair. Like Lee-la, he was dressed in black leather. It was Esteban Romero! He had a plasma blaster in his hand, from the muzzle of which ozone vapors now curled.
“What goes, here?” he asked. “Having an execution without me?”
“Esteban!” Lee-la ran to him. “Welcome home!” They embraced and kissed. “We thought you were in some kind of trouble. These two showed up and we suspected them of being spies for the League.”
“Spies?” Romero let go of the woman and walked around the edge of the pool. He looked at Jameson first and then out at the man standing at the end of the plank. His eyes opened wide and a toothy grin split his face.
“Carson! Amigo! What are you doing out there?”
“Esteban! Old buddy. Glad to see you haven’t forgotten me.”
“No,” the pirate said, and then the smile disappeared and he suddenly frowned. “And I haven’t forgotten how we parted.”
“Just a little misunderstanding between friends. That girl — I didn’t know you were that serious about her.”
“Girl!” Lee-la said. “What girl?”
“No girl, Lee-la,” Romero said. “It was a long time ago.” He wasn’t anxious to follow that line of discussion. “Carson! Amigo! Come down off of there.”
He turned to Lee-la. “How could you execute my friend this way? Lee-la, I’m disappointed in you. This man saved my life once. How can I let you kill him now?”
Carson walked back to the edge of the pond, and Romero cut the ropes away from his arms. “My friend, how good it is to see you,” he said, grabbing Carson’s shoulders with his two hands. “It’s been such a long time.”
“I’m glad to see you too,” Carson said, glancing back at the swirling waters of the pool.
“We have a lot of catching up to do,” Romero said. “But tell me what brings you here.”
“I brought somebody,” Carson said. “Captain Esteban Romero I’d like you to meet James Joyce Jameson, a famous author. He writes pirate books, or what passes for books these days.”
“James Joyce Jameson!” Romero beamed. “I love your work. You’re one writer who really seems to understand the pirate mind.” He turned to Lee-la. “Honey, this is a famous man! And you were going to kill him too?”
“I thought he was a damn spy!”
“A spy! You’re not a spy, are you, Mr. Jameson?”
“No, no. Absolutely not.”
“Then what are you doing here?”
Carson interrupted. “Research.”
“Research?” Romero was surprised. “You mean you want to know more about pirate life for your books? How interesting. You want to study Romero and his men to use us in your books? Lee-la, do you hear this? Mr. Jameson is going to make us famous!”
“We already are famous,” the woman said.
“Don’t listen to her,” Romero said. “She’s just angry because I spoiled the execution. Come! Let’s go back to the palace. I want to hear more.”
He put his arm around Carson’s shoulder as they walked back down the jungle trail toward the city. “Hey, amigo,” he said. “Now we’re even. You saved my life that time many years ago. Now I saved yours. The slate is clean.”
Carson felt strange as they walked back to the city, as though, bringing Jameson here had been a huge mistake. But the delight Romero showed as he talked to the author made him shake off the feeling. Still, he thought, the sooner the two days he’d promised Jameson were up the better.
The next morning, Carson and Jameson awoke early in the room Romero had given them in the palace. Ancient and crumbling as the city and its edifices were, the pirate had managed to fit the interiors of the rooms with the finest furniture, carpets, and tapestries from all over the world. It had all been taken in plunder over the fifteen years Esteban Romero had plied his trade. A girl brought fresh fruit and told them they were invited to breakfast with the captain.
The palace dining hall was as richly appointed as the other rooms. They sat with Romero and Lee-la at an immense, ornately carved table made of solid oak. They ate off gold plates and drank from jeweled goblets.
“Life has treated you well, Esteban,” Carson said, sipping some fresh fruit juice.
“I have treated myself well, my friend,” Romero answered. “Life doesn’t care one way or another. It will treat you cruelly as easily as it will treat you kindly. A man has to take what he wants from life, or he’ll die.”
“Tell me captain,” Jameson said. “Can you remember your first adventure?” He had the Mini-Port-Comm on the table in front of him. “Do you remember what happened the day you knew it was your destiny to become a space pirate?”
Romero smiled. “Destiny,” he said, his eyes beaming. “I like that word. I like the way you speak, Mr. Jameson.” He nudged Lee-la with an elbow. “You hear that? Destiny. Only a real writer uses words like that.”
Carson ate some of the scrambled Gorko bird egg Romero’s cook served and drank a hot beverage made of some sort of ground beans, that vaguely resembled Earth coffee. He could see that Romero was clearly infatuated with his visitor. The idea of being immortalized in a book had completely swept Esteban Romero off his feet. The legendary pirate began orating the story of his first act of space piracy some 15 years ago, and Carson could only chuckle to himself, as the captain spared no detail, no dramatic inflection in the telling of the tale. The space pirate’s ego was swelling beyond even its normally huge proportions.
After breakfast, Romero and Jameson went off together to the clearing the pirates used as a landing strip. The captain wanted to give Jameson a tour of the Black Vulture, a 200 ton, mega-war ship, equipped with laser cannon, Invisi-shields, and Hyper-drive that could reach 20 times the speed of light.
While they were gone, Carson spotted Lee-la sitting rather dejectedly in the courtyard outside the palace. She sat on an old canon that once fired cannon balls and now stood in the courtyard more as a decorative ornament than a weapon.
“What’s the matter?” Carson asked. “You look a little fed up.”
“This writer, Jameson,” Lee-la said. “He talks too much. And asks too many questions.”
“Romero doesn’t seem to mind it.”
“He’s in love with him!” Lee-la said. “Now he has no time for Lee-la.”
“Well, we’ll only be here another day,” Carson said. “And then we’ll be gone.”
The girl looked up at him from the corners of her eyes. “Lee-la will be sorry to see you go,” she said.
Carson could sense trouble. “Last night you wanted to kill me.”
“That was last night,” she said. “Lee-la does not feel that way this morning.”
“Sure we’re not really spies?”
The girl frowned and the look in her eye changed. “I don’t know. Maybe not you. But that Jameson. Something about him I do not like.”
Carson didn’t say anything. He didn’t like the man either. Was it just his superciliousness? He didn’t know. Carson wanted to change the subject. “How do you like the life of a pirate? Must be hard for a woman.”
“Why? I can do anything any man can do.”
“But times are changing. The League is dedicated to wiping out piracy. And in a way the pirates have brought it on themselves. It’s not like the old days. Pirates used to have a sort of code of honor they lived by. Now, the new generation I guess you can call them. They’re not much more than savage animals. The atrocities they’ve committed have made it harder for Romero. Now he’s forced to hide out in this god forsaken place. Not many places left for him. He may not be as bad as the others, but when they catch him, they’ll execute him just the same.”
“This I know,” Lee-la said. “But what is to be done? It is too late to turn back the clock.”
Later that afternoon, Carson returned to his room. A nagging feeling had been bothering him all morning. When Lee-la had voiced her suspicions about Jameson a faint sense of alarm had gone off inside him. And it wasn’t the first time he’d had a bad feeling about the man. What did he know about him after all? He had come to Carson out of the blue asking for his help and he’d rather recklessly agreed without bothering to check him out.
Carson remembered how Jameson reacted when he’d said back in The Corvette as they approached Sarna that the League has all the power. He had sense an inner turmoil in the man. He’s seemed suddenly afraid. Why?
Carson found the black canvass duffle bag that Jameson had brought with him lying on the floor at the foot of the bed he’d slept in overnight. He didn’t like snooping in other people’s property, but some instinct drove him to open the bag and look inside it. He found a change of clothes, some toiletries, a couple of Jameson’s Brain Books, and underwear. Hold it! Beneath the underwear, something winked red at him. He threw the underwear out on the bed and found a small cloth-covered compartment sewn into the bottom of the bag. Something inside the compartment sent out a steady red blinking light. Carson felt a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. He tore the cloth away and grabbed the square object that lay under it. A galaxial positioning tracker. Damn!
Carson stormed out of the room and strode out of the palace. He ran into Lee-la in the street next to the courtyard. She saw something wrong in Carson’s face. “What is it?”
“I’ve made a terrible mistake,” Carson said. “Is Romero still out at the air strip?”
“Yes,” Lee-la said, running to keep up with him. “What’s wrong?”
Both of them ran out of the city and minutes later found Romero, Jameson at his side, the ever present Comm-Corder in his hand. They stood in the clearing before the massive bulk of The Black Vulture. The onyx colored ship seemed almost a living thing that could lift off the ground and fly off at any moment. It’s size dwarfed Carson’s gull wing fighter sitting at the other end of the field. He hoped he’d never have to meet The Vulture in combat.
“Romero!” Carson yelled. The pirate turned, a smile on his face.
“Amigo!” he shouted. “Come, I was just telling Mr. Jameson—”
“Don’t tell him anything,” Carson said. “I’ve blundered, my friend. I’m sorry. This man is a spy for the League. I found this in his bag.” Carson held the positioning device out in his hand. “He’s sending your location to the League.”
“You see,” Lee-la shouted. “I was right!”
Carson threw the device to the ground and stomped it with the heel of his boot until the plastic case was smashed and the light stopped blinking. “You and your men have got to get out of here. League ships must be on their way.”
Romero turned on the diminutive Jameson, towering over him like a bear about to attack. “Is this true?”
Jameson turned white. He ran behind Carson. “Stop him, Carson,” he yelled. “He’s going to kill me.”
Carson grabbed Jameson’s shirt and pulled him close. “I ought to kill you myself,” he snarled. “Why, Jameson? Why did you do it?”
“I didn’t have any choice,” the writer cried. “It was either do what they wanted or go to jail. You see the League found out I owed millions in unpaid taxes. It was all my accountant’s fault. I tried to explain. I would never cheat the government. But they wouldn’t believe me. They made me an offer. They’ve been after Romero for years. They said my career as a writer of pirate stories would be a good cover. They knew you were Romero’s friend. It was a perfect set up. I had no choice!”
“Kill him,” Lee-la shouted.
“Step aside, Carson.” Romero gripped his plasma pistol and stepped forward, his mouth twisted in an angry grimace.
“Stop him, Carson,” Jameson screeched. “I paid you to protect me. You took my money, now do your job.”
Carson let go of him, and Jameson ran around behind him, keeping Carson between Romero and him.
“Hold it, Esteban!” Carson said. “Shouldn’t you be getting out of here?”
“After I shoot him.”
“Can’t let you do that.”
“What? Why not.”
“He’s my client. He paid for my services. Once I take a job, I see it through. You know that. I can’t let you kill him.”
“After what he did? I admire your professional ethics, but he betrayed you too.”
“I know. But I still can’t let you do it. He may be a worthless scumbag, but I’ve been paid to see he doesn’t come to any harm.”
“Don’t make me kill you, Carson, just to get to him.”
The two men stood face to face, eye to eye. “Don’t make me draw,” Carson said, the palm of his hand hovering over the laser pistol strapped to his leg.
“Drop your weapons,” Jameson shouted. The men turned and saw Jameson with his arm yoked around Lee-la’s neck, her pistol in his hand.
“Shoot him,” Lee-la yelled.
“Drop the pistols on the ground now,” Jameson said.
Carson and Romero let the guns slip from their hands.
Jameson started dragging the woman backward, toward the jungle. Even though he had control of the situation, he was panicked. “Keep your hands up, and don’t follow us.” Lee-la tried to wrest herself free, but Jameson put the pistol to her forehead. “Don’t try it!”
Carson started to move. “Stay where you are,” Jameson yelled. He fired a purple blast of plasma at Carson, who dove on the ground out of the way of the ray. Lee-la raised her leg and brought her foot down on Jameson’s instep. The man yelled and let go of her. He jumped back and fired. The girl yelped and spun around, then fell on the ground. Romero, now heedless of the threat from Jameson’s gun, ran toward him. With a cry of fear Jameson fired a wild blast that missed Romero, then ran into the jungle, following the trail back to the ancient city.
Carson ran behind Romero, who stopped to kneel next to Lee-la. She looked up at him in pain. Her shoulder was burnt black by the ray. “I’m all right,” she said, sitting up with Romero’s help.
“Get her on The Vulture,” Carson said. He noticed that men had run out of the ship at the sound of the shots and were coming toward them. “Round up all your crew and get out of here. The League will come down on this place with everything they’ve got.”
Romero cradled Lee-la in his arms. “You should have let me kill him,” he said. “But I understand why you didn’t. A man has to have something, some set of rules, or we all just turn into things like those creatures in the Pool of Death.”
“You should kill him,” Lee-la said, nodding at Carson. “He brought all this trouble to you.”
Romero helped the woman to her feet. Romero’s men surrounded them. “In the heat of anger a moment ago I could have killed you,” he told Carson. “With all my men here it would be easy to kill you now. But not this time. Esteban Romero has his rules too. Adios, amigo.”
With a wave of the hand, Romero led Lee-la and his crew back to The Black Vulture.
Carson turned and ran down the trail into the jungle. The path ran a quarter mile to a point where it forked, one way going to the city and the other further into the jungle. Carson stopped to consider which way Jameson might have gone. Then he heard the crack of a tree limb from further back in the jungle. He took off at a run in that direction.
Several hundred yards further he saw a flash of movement through the trees ahead.
“Jameson,” Carson shouted. “Stop. Throw that gun away.”
“No! Romero will kill me.”
“He’s gone,” Carson yelled. “They’re all gone. You can come out.”
A plasma blast singed the leaves of the tree next to Carson’s head. He ducked down.
“I don’t believe you!”
“Come on out,” Carson said. “I’ll take you back. You won’t be harmed.”
“Back where? When the League finds Romero gone, I’ll face 20 years in prison for tax evasion. I’ll take my chances in the jungle.”
“You’re talking crazy,” Carson shouted. “Come on out.”
“No! Go away!” Another blast broke a tree limb off above where Carson was standing. Carson heard footsteps thumping ahead on the trail. There was a sudden commotion of branches cracking and breaking and then a loud splash. Jameson let out a blood curdling scream that echoed through the trees. Carson heard the growls and grunts and snapping jaws of the Croco-saurs.
He stood up and holstered his pistol. The screaming stopped suddenly and a terrible silence lay across the dank, tangled jungle. Carson turned around and headed back up the trail. There was no need to find out what had happened at The Pool of Death.
Carson sat back in the pilot seat of The Corvette, holding an old, beat up looking hard cover book in his lap. The gull wing was on auto pilot, the course set for Tulon. It would be a couple of hours before he got home. He settled back, put his feet up on the dash and opened the worn volume. He began to read:
“Peter Blood, bachelor of medicine, among other things besides, smoked a pipe and tended the geraniums boxed on the sill of his window above Water Lane in the town of Bridgewater. . .”
Carson shifted his weight, and thought, “Now that’s writing.”
Copyright © 2014 by John M. Whalen. All Rights Reserved. Originally published in Ray Gun Revival, January 2009 as The Great Author Affair
Art Copyright © 2014 by Bob Bello. All Rights Reserved.
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