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Chapter 1

"You got off lightly, Grimes," said Rear Admiral Damien.

Grimes's prominent ears flushed angrily as he scowled at the older man across the vast, gleaming surface of the desk, uncluttered save for telephone, read-out screen and the thick folder that must contain, among other documents relating to himself, a transcript of the proceedings of the recent Court of Inquiry.

"You got off lightly, Grimes," Damien repeated.

His elbows on the desk, the tips of his steepled, skeletal fingers propping his great beak of a nose, he stared severely at the owner and erstwhile master of the star tramp (the privateer, the pirate) Sister Sue. Grimes thought irreverently, If it weren't for that schnozzle his face would look just like a skull . . . Come to that, his uniform tailor must use a skeleton for his dummy . . .

Briefly he entertained the ludicrous vision of a spidery tailorbot, fussily measuring and recording, scuttling around and over an assemblage of dry, articulated bones.

He grinned.

"What are you thinking, Grimes?" demanded Damien sharply.

"Nothing, sir."

"Ha. Of course. Nothing that you'd dare to tell me, you mean. May I remind you that the crime of Dumb Insolence, with its penalties, is still listed in Survey Service Regulations despite all the efforts of the Human Rights League to have it removed? And even though your Master Astronaut's Certificate of Competency was suspended by the court you still hold your Survey Service Reserve commission. And you have not yet been released from Active Duty."

"I was under the impression, sir," said Grimes stiffly, "that my Reserve Officer's commission was a secret."

"Was—and is. But I know your status. I can still throw the book at you if I feel like it." Then Damien allowed himself a grin and, briefly, looked almost genial. "But I didn't send for you so that I could haul you over the coals, although it has been like old times, hasn't it?" (That grin, Grimes decided, had become wolfish.) "Officially I'm supposed to be conducting a little inquiry of my own. The safe passage of merchant shipping is among my responsibilities—so, quite naturally, I'm interested in such activities as privateering. And piracy. But I already have your confidential report. And Mayhew's. I know what really happened—which is more than can be said for Lord Justice Kirby and his assessors, or for the boarding party that brought your ship in under arrest. That ex-girlfriend of yours—or not so 'ex'—did a good job of brainwashing your officers. My people thought that the apparatus she brought aboard Sister Sue was just an aid to interrogation, not for the implantation of false memories."

Damien laughed. "And it was a good story that the witnesses told the court, wasn't it? The wicked Kate Connellan and the even wickeder Countess of Walshingham seizing the ship at gunpoint and forcing you to embark upon a career of piracy . . . But somebody had to carry the can back. They didn't survive—and you did."

He opened the thick folder, found the right page. "And what did that old fogey Kirby say? Ah, here we are. 'Nonetheless I am of the strong opinion that the master, John Grimes, was not entirely blameless. He deliberately set his feet onto the downward path into violent crime when he placed his ship, his people and himself at the service of the notorious Commodore Baron Kane, as he is now known. John Grimes should have pondered the truth of the old adage, He who sups with the devil needs a long spoon. But John Grimes was like too many in this decadent day and age, money hungry. Had his avarice put only himself at risk I should not think so hardly of him—but all of his crew, merchant spacemen and women, ignorant of the arts—if they may so be called—of war, were compelled, willy nilly, to share the perils to which their captain had deliberately exposed himself, persuaded by him that privateering is no risk and all profit . . ." Sanctimonious old swine, isn't he? 'And some of his crew whom he deluded were not even experienced spacemen. His engineering officers, for example, young men recruited from industry and the Halls of Academe on the world of Austral, true innocents abroad . . .' "

"Those bastards!" exploded Grimes. "They were with the Green Hornet and Wally!"

"I know, I know. But they don't, not now. They have that fine set of false memories. They're little, woolly, innocent lambs, all of them, in their own minds, and in old Kirby's mind." He switched to his imitation of the judge's voice. " 'It is obvious to me that John Grimes is unfit to hold command. I have considered the cancellation of his qualifications but have decided to temper justice with mercy, hoping that in the fullness of time he may come to see the error of his ways. Therefore I order that his Certificate of Competency be suspended for a period of ten Standard Years.' "

"And what am I supposed to be doing with myself for all that time?" asked Grimes.

"You still have your ship. We released her to you. We'll see that she finds employment. I've no doubt that your mate—your ex-mate, rather—will make quite a good master . . ."

"While I sit and sulk in the owner's suite when I'm not getting into his hair. No, sir. That wouldn't be fair to Billy Williams. Come to that, it wouldn't be fair to me. It'd be worse than just being an ordinary passenger." He got to his feet, began to pace up and down. He pulled his pipe from a pocket of his civilian slacks, filled and lit it. He said, speaking through an eruption of acrid fumes, "I think that the Service should do something for me in the way of employment."

"I didn't give you permission to smoke, Grimes. Oh, all right, all right. Carry on asphyxiating yourself. As far as the universe knows you're a civilian shipmaster—ex-shipmaster, rather—and I have no jurisdiction over you. But you're still on pay, captain's salary. We'll not let you starve even if Sister Sue's running at a loss."

"Thank you, sir. I'll not hurt your feelings by refusing my pay. I've earned it. But I want to be doing something."

"Why don't you write a book, Grimes? Your autobiography should make fascinating reading."

"And would the Survey Service provide legal defense if I were sued for libel? And if such a case were heard by Lord Justice Kirby the best lawyers in the universe couldn't save me."

Damien laughed. "All right, all right. If you wrote the book I'd probably be among those screaming libel. Now, Grimes, sit down and listen. I sent for you so that I could sound you out. I've an offer to make that I'd not be making if you'd indicated that you'd be quite happy bumbling around in that rustbucket of yours even if not in command of her.

"Have you ever heard of Liberia?"

"In Africa?"

"No. Not the province. The planet. The colony."

"Oh. That Liberia. Founded by a bunch of freedom-loving anarchists during the days of the gaussjammers. I've heard about it but I've never been there."

"How would you like to go?"

"Doing what? Or as what?"

"As Governor."

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