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Chapter 1

There is a tide in the affairs of men that, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. But tides have a habit of ebbing—and Grimes's personal tide had ebbed. He wasn't quite on the rocks but he was most definitely stranded and would remain so until he could raise the wherewithal to pay his steadily mounting port dues and various fines and legal expenses. Meanwhile his beloved Little Sister was under arrest, with a writ firmly glued to her outer airlock door, and her owner-master had been obliged to seek paid employment. He was long used to three square meals a day with sips and nibbles in between and there is usually a charge for such sustenance. He could have solved all his financial problems by selling the ship—only a deep-space-going pinnace but valuable nonetheless; even as scrap she would have fetched a not so small fortune—but he was stubborn. He could have shipped out as Third Mate of the Interstellar Transport Commission's Epsilon Draconis—one of her officers had been involved in a serious ground-car accident when returning to the spaceport after a rather wild party—but did not elect to do so. Firstly, he had been too long in Command to relish the idea of signing on as a junior officer. Secondly, as long as he was the owner of Little Sister he wanted to stay where he could keep an eye on her. A spaceship entirely constructed of an isotope of gold is too precious an artifact to be left in the full charge of strangers.

The trouble had started when Far Traveler Couriers (the plural was unjustified but it sounded better), wholly owned and operated by one John Grimes, fairly recently a full Commander in the Interstellar Federation's Survey Service, more recently Master of the Baroness d'Estang's spaceyacht The Far Traveler, had contracted to carry a pair of lerrigans from Pangst, their native world, to the interplanetary zoo in New Syrtis, capital city of Bronsonia, all charges to be paid on safe delivery of the beasts. Grimes liked most animals and although he was not especially fond of small, quarrelsome dogs was prepared to be friendly with the larger canines.

The lerrigans were handsome enough brutes, not unlike a Terran Pekingese dog in appearance, but with zebra-patterned fur and of considerably greater dimensions, being about the size of full grown Alsatians. Grimes, inspecting them before shipment, had been favorably impressed, especially when the animals grinned happily at him. (Human beings are all too liable to misread the facial expressions of members of other species.) He did not anticipate any trouble during the voyage. A supply of canned food was shipped with the animals and, according to the literature that he had been given, they were omnivorous and would appreciate the variation of their diet by occasional scraps from the captain's table. The instructions were very definite on one point. On no account were the beasts to be let out of their cages.

During this short stay on Pangst, Grimes could not spare the time to visit the library to read up on the habits of his living freight. The consignor had not told him much, saying, "Just keep to the book, Captain, and you'll not go wrong." And when it came to books, Grimes thought, he had access to the entire Encyclopedia Galactica through Little Sister's memory bank; there would be time enough to learn what he needed to know once he was off planet and on trajectory for Bronsonia. As a matter of fact there was a lerrigan entry—a very brief one sandwiched between a long article on "Lerner, Peter Frederick," who for most of his long life, had been an obscure politician on New Maine and another long article on "Lervinsky, Ivan Vladimir," at one time Secretary of the Reformed Communist Party of New Georgia. Lerrigans, Grimes discovered (as though he didn't know already) were pseudo-canines native to Pangst.

Pseudo or not, he thought, they were just dogs—big dogs and friendly. They watched him as he went about his business in the cabin of the pinnace. They whined—a most melodious whine—ingratiatingly. They were effusively grateful when he pushed their dishes of food, at the prescribed intervals, through the spring traps in the heavy metal mesh of their cages. They cooperated intelligently when he pulled out the trays at the base of their prisons to dispose of the soiled bedding and to replace it with fresh. They answered to the names that he had given them—Boy for the male and Girl for the female.

To hell with the instructions, he thought. They should be given the opportunity to get some exercise. What harm could it do? They couldn't possibly run away. Little Sister herself was cage enough.

So he let the lerrigans out of their boxes. They were ecstatically grateful, whining so musically that Grimes thought that there should have been words to their song. They put their front paws on his shoulders and licked his face. Grimes would have resented such attentions from the pair of real dogs but the breath of these animals was oddly fragrant—intoxicating, almost. They accompanied him as he went about such duties as he was obliged to carry out in this almost fully automated ship, watching him as he checked the position in the chart tank, as he made his routine inspection of the mini-Mannschenn and the inertial drive, as he punched the menu for his evening meal on the keyboard of the autochef. He had learned by watching their reactions to the leftovers of previous meals what human foods they liked so included a double serving of steak, rare. (Little Sister's tissue-culture vats were well stocked.)

Dinner over, he lit his foul pipe and sat in an easy chair to watch and listen to a program of Carinthian light opera on his playmaster. This art form—if art form it could be called—was too corny for cultured tastes, but Grimes, when he was in what he called his simple spaceman mood, liked it. He was oddly content as he sprawled there, flanked by the two faithful (as he was already thinking of them) animals. He was more content than he ever had been on the occasions when he had carried human passengers.

Finally he decided to turn in. He considered briefly returning the lerrigans to their cages, then decided against it. He did, however, make sure that the doors to the engine space and to the tiny control room were shut. The animals could not possibly do any harm in the main cabin. They could return to sleep in their boxes if they so desired but he would be quite happy if they stretched out on the deck beside his bunk. He stripped, dimmed the cabin lights and then stretched out on the resilient mattress. He was asleep almost at once.

* * *

He dreamed, vividly.

He had not thought about Maggie Lazenby for some quite considerable time but he was dreaming about her now. In the dream she was naked, just as he was in reality, and her body was pressed to his and she was kissing him. Her breath was intoxicatingly fragrant. He felt himself stiffening, knew in some remote corner of his mind that this was only a dream and that he would very soon be achieving a lonely climax. But it was a long time since he had had a woman and the dream was a good one. What if his bedsheet were semen-stained? The ship's laundry facilities were better than merely adequate.

It was the knowledge that the lovemaking was only imaginary that saved him. He thrust upward into the dream Maggie's receptive body—and he felt teeth. He screamed, desperately rolled away from under the furry succubi. Scrabbling claws scored his back and the fangs that, had he not fully awoken in time, would have castrated him bit deeply into his right buttock. "Lights!" he yelled, and responsive to his command, the illumination of the cabin came on at full strength. The abrupt transition from near darkness to harsh effulgence dazed the lerrigans—not for long but for long enough. Grimes reached for the secret locker that, during a visit to Electra, he had caused to be installed under his bunk. The panel that was its door was sensitive only to the pattern of his fingerprints. It flew open and he grabbed what was in the little cupboard, a Minetti automatic pistol. He had thought that he might, one day, require this weapon for protection against some homicidally inclined human passenger—couriers very often have odd customers—but never dreamed that it would be used against animals.

He thought all this later, when he was cleaning up the mess after treating his wounds. At this moment his main concern was the preservation of his life. He was in an awkward position, crouched by the side of his bunk, pistol in hand, his back to the snarling beasts. He brought his right hand around so that the weapon was pointing behind him, pressed the firing stud. The Minetti jumped in his grasp as the full clip of fifty rounds was discharged, spraying the area to his rear with the tiny but deadly flechettes.

Then he turned. The lerrigans were dead, very dead, their green blood soaking into the rich, purple carpet. The male, Grimes noticed with disgust, still had an enormous erection and the female, her haunches upraised, was obviously receptive.

He threw up, adding to the mess on the carpet, then went to the medical cabinet to spray his bites and scratches with antiseptic coagulant.

* * *

Little Sister possessed the capability to carry frozen cargo. Grimes, after he was partially recovered, dragged the bodies of the two animals into a refrigerated chamber. They would not now be of any great use to the New Syrtis Zoo but a skilled taxidermist might be able to pretty up the corpses well enough to render them suitable for exhibition in a museum. As for himself, he did not now expect the red carpet to be rolled out for him on his arrival at New Syrtis.

But he did not anticipate the very serious trouble that he had gotten himself into.

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