Bruce Davis

Serial Story
Tales From the OR
Chain Story
The Quality of Mercy
Benthic Rhapsody

This is a serialized story. New sections will post weekly (or so). Follow along. Some stories may be available for download if you're hooked and can't wait for the next installment. Others, especially works in progress, may only appear here.

Enjoy and let me know what you think at us008812 (at) or on my Facebook page.




Prologue: From Ceres With Love

The hologram caught Deuce's eye as he passed the club. He stopped and watched the miniature figure for a long moment. She hadn't changed; petite, almost doll-like, with pale skin and hair that was salt white except for a single lock of violet sweeping from the right side of her forehead to her shoulder. Her eyes were violet as well; bright and gleaming like the amethyst pendant that hung between her small breasts. Deuce smiled. 'Grace Tyler, two sets nightly 20:00 and 22:00' read the marquee above the hologram.

The door to the club was open and Deuce looked in. A cleaning 'bot hummed across the floor. Chairs were stacked upside down on the tables and the lights behind the bar were bright enough to show the dust on the more expensive liquor bottles. A piano played softly from the bandstand. Deuce couldn't see who was playing but the tune sounded familiar. He stepped closer.

"Who's there?" a woman called from behind the piano.

"I thought I recognized that tune," Deuce said, stepping up onto the bandstand.

Grace stood and walked toward him. She felt the edge of the piano and held a hand out to him, her sightless eyes looking directly at him as if she could see him. She always did that. It still unnerved him.

"Sven," she said as her fingers touched his. "I didn't know you were on Highpoint."

"I just got in," he said taking her tiny hand in his. "We had a charter. . ."

She slammed her knee into his crotch and he doubled over involuntarily. Her fist smashed into his right ear and he sprawled on the floor.

"That's for leaving me on Delilah, you son of a bitch."

Deuce rubbed his ear as he turned over to a sitting position. "I asked you to wait for me. I came back for you but you weren't there."

"You have to give a girl a better reason than 'I've got to go to Mars and pick up my old Lieutenant. I'll be back in a few months.' What was I supposed to do in the meantime?"

"Zack needed me," Deuce said, gently shifting his weight to ease the ache between his legs.

She dropped down on the floor beside him, leaning her head on his arm and holding his hand. "Did it ever occur to you that I needed you."

Deuce put his arms around her and pulled her close. She felt tiny and vulnerable in his arms and, as always, he worried that he would crush her. She stiffened at first, then melted into his embrace and he felt like he had that first time, in a club on Ceres.


The bar wasn't the kind of place Deuce usually went for a drink. Too upscale for his taste with small tables lit by tiny glow globes that hardly shed enough light to see the tabletop, much less read the fancy menu that the waiter shoved under his nose. But the only other choice on Ceres was the bar at the employee recreation center and that was full of off-duty Feddies. Even though he was under a termination order back on Mars, he still considered himself a First Sergeant in the Martian Special Forces. Drinking in the same bar with a bunch of Federal grunts didn't seem like a good idea to him.

He set the menu on the table and grabbed the waiter's sleeve before he could get away. "Beer," Deuce said. "Whatever you have on draft."

The waiter hurried away and Deuce shifted in the chair so that he could see the door and the stage at the same time. He didn't think the Martian Third Directorate would make a run at him here, but he believed in being cautious. Even though the war between Mars and the Federation of Earth and the Moon was winding down and Ceres was officially neutral territory, covert attacks from both sides still happened.

He scanned the room slowly. Most of the patrons were better dressed than he was, a mixture of business suits and casual chic than spelled money. The bar seemed to cater to the travelers who came to Ceres to do business with the big corporations that ran the place. Employees, workers and ship's crew did their drinking in the canteens on the lower decks.

His beer arrived and he drank it slowly. At the prices this place charged, he'd have to make it last. It was good beer, though. Real stout, probably imported from Earth. He eased back into the chair and savored the thick malty taste.

The lights dimmed slightly and a spotlight illuminated the small stage about a meter and a half to his left. Somewhere a piano began playing. Deuce recognized the song; "Red Sand", an old Martian blues ballad.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," said a voice over the sound of the piano. "Ms. Grace Tyler."

A small, slim figure stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight amidst a smattering of polite applause. Deuce took a deep swallow of his beer before setting the glass carefully on the table. He realized he was staring, but no longer cared.

She wasn't the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, but something about the way she moved into the spotlight and began to sing the old song touched him. Her voice reached inside of him and tugged at feelings he hadn't known he possessed. He knew the words, had known them from the time he was a child, but somehow they sounded new when she sang them. She finished the last verse, ending on a high, pure note that she held for an impossibly long time. As Deuce joined in the applause that swelled as the song ended, he realized there were tears coursing down his cheeks. He wiped his eyes and gulped the last of his beer as the piano began playing again and she started another number.

He lost track of time somewhere in the middle of the third song. All he heard was her voice; all he saw was her strange violet eyes. The set ended and she left the stage. Deuce switched from beer to bourbon during the intermission, no longer caring what it cost.

The second set was even more captivating than the first. The songs ranged from smoky torch songs to upbeat love ballads. Deuce couldn't have named a single one, but her voice was indelibly burned into his heart and his brain. The set finished and he rose to his feet, clapping along with the applause that filled the small space.

Grace bowed several times, then turned to the back of the stage and gestured into the shadows. The lights came up and revealed a piano. A slim man with long black hair drawn back in a pony tail stood up from the keyboard and bowed shyly before sitting quickly down. The spotlight cut out and the room lights brightened a bit. Recorded music played softly from the ceiling and Grace stepped toward the table where Deuce sat.

She descended the single step from the stage to the floor and walked to his table. An outstretched hand brushed the tabletop and she stopped, placing left her hand flat on it and extending the right hand toward him. Something about the way she stood was odd. She was facing him, but not directly.

"I'm Grace Tyler," she said. "Thank you for your enthusiastic applause."

Deuce reached out his hand to shake hers, but when she didn't move to meet his grasp he looked more closely at her. She seemed to be looking right at him, but her eyes were not focused on his. They seemed to be looking at his right shoulder. He grasped her hand and she immediately adjusted her stance to face him more squarely. She's blind," he thought.

"You have a great voice," he said with a slight stammer.

She laughed. "It's adequate," she said. "You're new here. What's your name?"

"Deuce Gulbrandsen," he said.

She laughed again. "Deuce? Isn't that some kind of playing card? What was your mother thinking?"

Deuce frowned. "Actually, my name's Sven. Sven Gulbrandsen the second. Never liked the name, so, Deuce."

"I like Sven. It's a strong name. You should be proud of it."

Deuce shrugged, then blushed as he realized that she couldn't see the gesture. She smiled sat down in the chair opposite his, her faced turned toward his, her eyes looking his way. It unnerved him slightly when her face followed him as he shifted in his chair.

"How do you do that?" he asked.

"Do what?"

"Follow me like that. I mean, I know you can't see me, but you look right at me."

She smiled. "My secret. Does it bother you? Should I wear dark glasses and stare at the wall?"

"No," Deuce said quickly. "No offense, just curious, that's all." He looked at the tabletop. This was going the way it usually did when he talked to women. At least the pretty ones.

She reached across the table and touched his hand. "It's all right, Sven. I'm not offended. It surprises a lot of people."

"Yes, ma'am," he said.

"It's Grace," she said. She raised her hand as the waiter passed. Deuce wondered how she knew who it was, but the waiter didn't seem surprised. "Another drink, please Henry. What are you drinking, Sven?"

"Bourbon," said Deuce. He didn't like the sly smile on the waiter's face but didn't want to start any trouble.

"Bring me one, too, please," Grace said. "And be nice, Henry. Deuce is a friend of mine." That seemed to surprise the waiter and he hurried away. Deuce smiled. Serves him right, he thought.

"So what brings you to Ceres?" Grace asked. "You don't seem the type to drink in overpriced clubs like this one."

"I'm a miner. My brother and I run a small survey business. We did some work for Ceres Mining on the outer 'roids. Came here to get paid."

"So you decided to splurge and see my show?" she teased.

"No. I mean, I liked the show and all, but the employee canteen is more my speed."

"And yet you're here."

Deuce sighed. "The canteen didn't seem too friendly, at least not to me."

She frowned. "The garrison troops, you mean. I can't imagine that they'd intimidate a man like you."

"Before I went into business with Mike, that's my brother, I did some time in the Martian military. Don't seem right to me to drink with Feddies. No need to go looking for trouble."

"The war has forced a lot of people to take sides. Despite Colonel Metternich's methods, Mars has many friends in the Belt, even if Ceres is maintaining an illusion of neutrality."

"Metternich ain't Mars," Deuce said bitterly. The waiter returned with their drinks. Deuce took a sip.

Grace lifted her glass. "To Mars," she said, then drank it down and slammed the empty glass down onto the table.

Deuce gulped. "You drink like a miner."

"I wasn't always a famous torch singer." She held up the glass and Henry rushed over to take it from her. "Again, please, Henry."

Deuce finished his more slowly. He was several drinks ahead of her and didn't want to ruin the night by getting drunk or running out of cash.

He needn't have worried. Grace sipped the next drink as they talked about her singing. She'd been on Ceres for a few months, signed to a six month contract by Kwai Hong holdings, the conglomerate that owned the bar and about half of the asteroid as well.

"Kwai Li Fan manages the club," she said. "He's Kwai Hong's oldest son, but doesn't seem to have his father's head for business. I think the old man lets him run this place so he can keep an eye on him. Li is sweet but not too bright."

"He a good friend of yours?" asked Deuce carefully.

She laughed. "You mean am I sleeping with him? No. Not that he hasn't suggested it."

"You must have a lot of guys sweet on you."

"Some," she said with a cock of her head. "Most are transients; businessmen looking for a quick fling before going home to their wives. Henry over there is horribly jealous of you right now." Deuce glanced at the waiter who was watching them intently. "Li has had him escorting me to my rooms every night since I started here, just to make sure I get there safely. He's developed quite a crush on me."

"So why's he jealous of me?"

"Because you're going to take me home tonight."

Deuce swallowed the rest of his bourbon and fought down the feeling that he was in way over his head. "Yes, Ma'am," he said.

She stood and reached a hand toward him. He nearly upset the table as he stood up himself. She smiled. Deuce thumbed the payment pad in the center of the table and was surprised to find that the bill had been paid. He frowned.

“Not sure I like a girl paying my tab,” he said.

“Not to worry. I won’t tell a soul.”

"How do we do this?" he asked.

"I take your arm and we walk. I know the way. I just need you to make sure I don't trip over anything or walk into someone else in the passageway. Call it vanity, but a stick or cane doesn't make much of a fashion statement."

Deuce laughed at that. "And a tunnel rat like me does?"

"Perhaps," she said. She reached up and passed her hand over his face, her fingertips brushing the contours of it. "You have a strong jaw, a well formed face. Your nose has been broken but it gives your face character. Yes, I think I'll look good on your arm. Shall we?"

She nestled her arm into the crook of his elbow and they walked past the bar and out into the passageway. She directed him through a series of corridors until they came to a warren of comfortable apartments. Deuce was only vaguely aware of their route. His attention was riveted on Grace. They said little as they walked but fell into a comfortable pace. She seemed to trust him completely and the few times he steered her around passersby, she responded as if they had been walking together for years.

Finally she said, "This is the corridor. It's the third door on the left."

"Third on the left," Deuce repeated. He counted the doors until they reached hers.

She turned toward him, her face turned up toward his. Although her eyes were unfocused, he had the unnerving sensation that she was looking at him.

"How do you do that?" he asked again.

She smiled. "I cheat," she whispered with a conspiratorial wink. "The pendant is a piezoelectric crystal. It sends out ultrasonic impulses. I have receivers implanted in my skull that pick up the return vibrations and translate them into a sound picture. I can 'see' in sonar; not details, but enough to pick out rough shapes. I really am blind like a bat."

Deuce laughed. "You didn't really need me, did you?"

"A lady always has use for a strong arm to hold," she said.

"How touching," said a third voice from Deuce's right.

He turned, cursing himself for being careless. A lean black man in a well-cut gray business suit leaned against the wall a meter or so away. Deuce hadn't heard him approach but he did hear the scrape of a boot from behind. He turned slowly and saw two more men coming up the corridor. These two wore utilitarian jump suits and although they carried no weapons, they had the unmistakable look of hired muscle.

Deuce turned back to the black man. "What do you want?"

The man ignored him. "You've been avoiding me, Grace," he said. "That's not smart."

"I told you I was finished, Lucas," Grace said evenly. "I don't owe Jones anything anymore."

"It doesn't work that way, Grace," said Lucas. "We paid for your fancy implants for a reason. You work for us until we say the job is finished."

"The lady said she quit," Deuce said quietly. "Why don't you just walk away."

"This is none of your business, big man." Lucas held out his left hand, palm up so Deuce could see it clearly. Tattooed there was a green and white shield with a rearing red dragon in its center; the sign of the Red Dragons.

"It'll take more'n a pretty tattoo to make me run away with my tail between my legs," Deuce said as he eased Grace's hand off his arm and placed her gently against the door. "You sure you want to make this play?"

Lucas moved away from the wall and faced Deuce. He flicked his arm downward and a short bladed combat knife dropped from a wrist sheath into his hand. Deuce crouched, aware of the footsteps of the men moving up behind him. He watched Lucas's eyes. They flicked up and to the left and Deuce sensed movement behind him. He lashed out with his left leg and caught the man behind him in the knee. The joint gave way with a distinct pop and the thug went down screaming.

Deuce feinted toward the other thug and Lucas grinned, rushing forward with the knife. But Deuce swung his body to meet him as he drove forward with his right leg. He brought both fists up and smashed into Lucas's chest and continued to drive forward. The combined force of Deuce's blow and Lucas's own momentum cracked the black man's sternum and momentarily took his breath away. Deuce didn't let up but kept driving into him, pummeling fists into his gut and ribs. The knife raked across Deuce's left arm drawing blood but doing little damage.

Lucas stumbled back, stunned, then lost his footing and fell backwards, arms flailing. Deuce caught his right hand and twisted. The knife clattered to the floor as bones snapped in Lucas's wrist. Deuce swept up the knife with one hand and smashed the heel of the other into Lucas's nose.

The third man rushed Deuce from behind, wrapping a thick forearm around his neck. Before the thug could lock his arm into a knockout hold, Deuce slashed his elbow with the knife, The man's grip loosened and Deuce tucked his chin and turned his head. He elbowed the thug in the gut and he let go. Deuce grabbed the man by his injured elbow and swung him head first into the wall.

Deuce held the knife in a low fighting grip as he backed up to cover Grace. She palmed the lock to her apartment and the door swung open. Lucas struggled to his feet breathing in short wheezing gasps. The two other men stayed down, not wanting to engage Deuce again.

"Told you you didn't want to make that play," Deuce said. "Enough?"

Lucas nodded. "You're not helping her, you know."

"Maybe not. But I won't be leaving her."

Lucas shrugged. "Your call, soldier. We'll be back."

"I'm counting on it." Deuce felt Grace's hand on the back of his shirt pulling him into the apartment. He watched as Lucas struggled to straighten up and walk away, then he backed in through the door and closed it.

He turned to face Grace and she fell against his chest, wrapping her arms around him. He hesitated for a second, then held her close. His arm began to throb where the knife had sliced him.

"Oh, Sven," she said, her voice muffled by his broad chest. "I was so frightened."

That made him laugh. "If you're gonna snuggle me like that, I'll forget you set me up. But don't lie to me. You ain't been scared of anything for years."

She started to push him away, but he gripped her upper arms. She struggled for a second, then stopped and stood very still. "What are you going to do?" she asked.

"I'm going to let go of your arms and then you're going to tell me what the Dragons want with you." She nodded once and he opened his hands. She stepped back, but not very far. She reached out and touched his left arm. Her fingers came away sticky with blood.

"You're hurt," she said.

"Just a scratch."

"I'll get you a clean towel. I don't have an autodoc in the apartment, or even bandages."

"Clean cloth's all it needs," said Deuce. He followed her into a small utility room and she pulled out a white face towel. Deuce wrapped his arm with it, wincing slightly as he cinched it tight across the shallow slash in his biceps. It could use a stitch or two, he thought. But a trip to a clinic would lead to too many questions.

Grace stood with her back to the wall. Deuce took her by the arm and guided her back to the apartment's main room. It was comfortably if functionally furnished with a pair of overstuffed armchairs, a low table and a small sofa. She sat down in one of the armchairs and pulled her knees up to her chin. Deuce lowered himself onto the sofa, facing her.

"So, why me?" asked Deuce. "Was it just my lucky day?"

She frowned. "You make it sound colder than it was. I knew Lucas would be waiting and Henry isn't very intimidating. I didn't think he'd actually confront us. I thought he'd see I had an escort and wait until later."

"How much later? Was I supposed to be your bodyguard all night?

"It wasn't like that, Sven. I just needed a strong arm to get me home."

"Lucas is a soldier for the Dragons. He's not gonna leave you alone just because I walk you home. What'd you think would happen tomorrow? Or the next day?"

"One day is all I need," she said.

"How's that?"

She sighed. "I had a plan. If I can get to the spaceport by ten in the morning, I can catch a ride on a Kwai Hong freighter bound for Delilah. Li set it up. I paid the pilot three thousand yuan to get me off Ceres."

"You trust this pilot?"

"I trust Li. He may not be the businessman his father is, but he's sweet and has always been honest with me."

"Lucas said the Dragons paid for your implants. What's the deal there?" Grace didn't answer. Deuce continued, "Is it a killing matter, or do they just want to rough you up a bit?"

She frowned. "Given a choice, I'd still rather not be beaten up."

"Not what I meant. So far all I've done is play rough with Lucas and the boys. Now they know they can't push me around. The Dragons can call it a misunderstanding and save face." Deuce paused for a second. "But if I draw first blood and they don't mean to kill you, then I could turn this into something it ain't. I need to know what the stakes are."

Grace nodded. "I was a tunnel singer in Planetia when they found me. I sang for tips near the Po Han Square drop shafts."

Deuce nodded. "I know the place. Tough crowd."

"It wasn't so bad. I managed to stay alive and avoided the worst of the gangs for a while. Then Lucas approached me and asked me how I'd like a steady gig singing in a nightclub. I didn't buy it at first, but he offered me twenty yuan to meet with another man at a public cafe. The other man never told me his name, but I think it was Colin Jones."

"Jones offered you the job?"

Grace nodded. "They paid for the implants so I could find may way around without help. They got me the job singing at the club here on Ceres. I was supposed to get close to Kwai Li Fan and then use him to access company secrets. But Li isn't the old man's choice to run things here. The real power has been given to the number two son, Kwai Chang Wu."

"So now the Dragons want you to seduce Wu?" Deuce asked.

Grace shivered and nodded. "I didn't mind making a play for Li Fan. He's not a bad guy and he treats the employees at the club all right. But Wu scares me. I met him once when he came to the club to talk to Li. He's cold; like an AI, no spark of warmth in his voice. He shook my hand and I felt like I'd touched a corpse."

"You told Lucas you wouldn't do it," Deuce said flatly.

"Not right then. I tried to be friendly to Wu, if not seductive. He was polite enough but made it clear he wasn't interested. As near as I can tell from what Li says, his brother lives like a monk. He sleeps on the floor in his office, eats little, never drinks and never, never fraternizes with the help. I told Lucas there wasn't a chance he'd let me get anything on him, but the Dragons aren't letting me off the hook. Lucas insists there's got to be some way to get to Wu and I have to find it."

Deuce nodded. "I can't see them wanting you dead over this. It'd be too much trouble to cover their tracks, even if they brought in outside talent. Lucas's not hiding his tattoo and those goons he was with were locals. They were sending you a message: play ball or else."

"What do we do now?" asked Grace.

"We?" She touched his arm and he laughed. "Okay, we. First we need something more than this knife before we meet up with any of Lucas's friends. Don't suppose you've got a pulse rifle stashed around here?" She shook her head. "No, didn't think so," he said. "How about a public netlink?"

"Why not the one in the apartment?" she asked.

"If they're not tapped into it, they're stupid. And they ain't stupid."

"There's a public link two corridors over near the store."

Deuce rose. "I need to get in touch with my brother. Stay here, lock the door behind me. Don't open it for anyone but me."

A few minutes later Deuce stood in front of a small public holomatrix. Mike answered as soon as Deuce gave his password.

"Deuce, what's wrong?" Mike asked. "Why aren't you using your personal link?"

"Spot of trouble," Deuce said. "I need you to get the brown leather bag I use for my surveying gear and bring it to this address." He read the address from the storefront. "Leg it, bro. This one has a sell-by date."

"On my way," Mike answered. "Give me twenty minutes."

Sixteen minutes later, Deuce saw Mike approaching from a cross passageway. He lifted a hand in greeting and Mike quickened his pace.

"So what's the play, big brother?" Mike asked. "Are we going to war?" Deuce cocked his head and Mike grinned. "Yeah, I know what you have in the bag. I always thought it looked too heavy for survey equipment."

"Follow me," Deuce said, taking the bag from Mike.

They made their way back to Grace's apartment. Deuce knocked twice, then twice again. Grace answered through the door, her voice muffled.

"Is that you, Sven?"

Mike grinned and whispered, "Sven?"

"Shut up," Deuce whispered back before answering Grace in a loud voice, "Yes, it's me. My brother's with me. You can open the door."

The door seals hissed and the door popped inward. Deuce stepped in. Grace had moved away from the door to the other side of the sofa. Deuce nodded his approval, even though she couldn't see the gesture. She was cautious and that was good. He waved Mike inside and resealed the door.

"It's okay, Grace," Deuce said stepping up to take her hand. She held it tight, then faced Mike.

"You're Sven's brother?"

Mike offered his hand, then realized she couldn't see it. "I'm Mike Finney," he said reaching out to touch her fingertips.

She shook his hand. "Finney? Not Gulbrandsen?"

"My Ma was a widow for a few years before she married Mike's Dad," said Deuce. "I was grown and on my own by then. Mike and I teamed up after he finished school."

"Deuce needed a keeper so I promised Mom I'd look out for him," Mike said.

Deuce grunted and Grace laughed. "I see. So Sven is watching out for me and you're watching out for him."

Deuce ignored the banter and flipped the bag upside down on the low table. He touched releases on diagonally opposite corners and lifted the false bottom away from the rest of the bag. Nestled in the shallow compartment under it lay a pulse rifle, broken down into power chamber, barrel and stock, along with a pair of combat knives and a blackened steel Smith and Wesson needler. A separate compartment held two power packs for the rifle and a several spare magazines for the Smith and Wesson.

Deuce rapidly assembled the pulse rifle and clipped a power pack into the stock. Mike picked up the needler and a mag. Grace ran her hands over the pulse rifle, the knives and the needler then drew back.

"Who are you?" she asked.

Mike laughed as he clicked the magazine into place. "I thought you already knew," he said. "Deuce is First Sergeant Sven Gulbrandsen, Martian Third Directorate."

Grace gasped. "The death squads."

"No!" Deuce growled. "Those were the Black Ops crew. I was counterinsurgency."

  Mike touched Grace on the shoulder. "He's one of the good guys, Grace," he said softly. Then louder to Deuce, "So what's the plan, bro?"

"We stay with Grace tonight, get her to the spaceport tomorrow."

"Something tells me it isn't that simple. Otherwise you wouldn't need me or the bag."

"Just before I called you, I roughed up a soldier for the Red Dragons who tried to muscle Grace. They may try to stop us."

Mike whistled softly. "Do you look for trouble, bro? Or does it just find you?"

Deuce shrugged. "I warned them. I ain't gonna let a cheap baotu with a fancy tattoo scare me off."

"Is this about Grace, or about you?"

"I told Grace I'd protect her."

Mike sighed. "Okay, Deuce. What's at the spaceport?"

Grace spoke up. "I paid a freighter pilot to get me off Ceres. The freighter's leaving for Delilah tomorrow morning. From there I can catch a transport to Tharsis or Tycho."

"And the Dragons?"

Deuce hefted the pulse rifle. "We can deal with them."

"Think, big brother," Mike said. "What happens when the freighter gets to Delilah? And even if they don't get Grace there, what about Tharsis? That's Dragon country. They'll snatch her as soon as the transport docks. Tycho isn't much better. Are you going to stay with her forever?"

"You got a better idea?"

Mike turned to Grace. "Why are the Dragons after you?"

Grace hesitated for a second, but Deuce nudged her gently. "It's Okay. Mikey's the smart one. He can help."

Grace nodded and told Mike about the implants and her contract at the club. "I was supposed to get close to Li and use him to report back to Lucas on Kwai Hong business secrets. But old man Kwai doesn't have any confidence in Li Fan. He may be the oldest son, but he doesn't have any real power in the family business."

Mike nodded. "That's true. The word in the business media is that Li is a half-wit and Kwai Hong has disowned him. Kwai Chang Wu is supposed to be taking over all the operations here on Ceres. That's really unusual for someone like Kwai Hong who touts himself as a Chinese traditionalist."

"Li's not stupid," Grace said. "He's just disinterested. He'd rather run a nightclub than a billion yuan conglomerate. I've met Wu. He's a cold as ice. Everyone here is afraid of him."

"So the Dragons want you to shift your attentions to Wu?"

Grace nodded. "Except Wu's not interested. I tried to tell Lucas that it's a dead end, but he won't listen."

"What sort of information were you supposed to be gathering?" asked Mike.

"I don't know. Lucas just said he'd tell me when the time came."

Mike pursed his lips. "Why would the Dragons go to so much trouble to spy on Kwai Hong?"

"Don't matter what they want," growled Deuce. "Grace ain't working for them anymore and they don't like it."

Mike nodded thoughtfully. "That's the immediate situation, bro. Just wondering how important Grace is to them and why." He looked at Grace, but didn't ask her any more questions. "So what's our next move? Stay here or get to the spaceport before the Dragons can arrange a reception?"

"Best we move Grace to our room," Deuce said. "The Dragons’ll be watching the Port. Lucas won't take a chance on her getting away without a fight. It'll take them a while to figure out who I am, and that gives us a window to get out of here." He touched Grace on the shoulder and she leaned into him wearily. "Get what you need to take with you and we'll leave right away."

She nodded. She made her way to the small bedroom and returned almost immediately with a shoulder bag slung over her arm. "I'm ready. I've had this packed since I first talked to Li about getting out of here."

Mike looked thoughtful again, but Deuce didn't care. He had a mission and a plan and that was all he needed.

"Stay here while I check the corridor," He said. "Mikey, keep the door open a crack so you can see me. Bring Grace along when I signal you."

Mike stood in the doorway as Deuce edged down the corridor. He reached the junction and checked the main passageway as far as the drop shafts. Then he waved Mike forward. As soon as he heard Mike and Grace come up behind him, he started off down the main passageway. He held the pulse rifle at low ready and hoped he wouldn't have to use it.

The walk back to the guest quarters where Deuce and Mike shared a room took only a few minutes. It was late in the sleep cycle and most of the workers in the area were home in bed. Deuce covered the corridor as Mike opened the door and ushered Grace in. Deuce scanned the area, but saw no one. Still, he had a feeling that the Dragons knew exactly where they were.

Deuce put Grace in his bed and spent the night on the floor in front of the door. Mike sat up in a chair for a long time, eyes closed but still awake. Deuce woke up several times during the night and saw him sitting in the same place, but by the time Grace awoke, Mike had moved to the other bed.

Deuce sat up as soon as Grace stirred and was standing by the door when she sat up in bed. "Sleep well?" he asked.

"Fine," she said. A note of concern crept into her voice. "Did you sit up all night?"

"No, I cat napped here by the door. An old military trick. I'm fine." He didn't mention that Mike had been awake most of the night.

"What time is it?" she asked.

"Six-thirty local," said Deuce. "What time are you supposed to meet this freighter pilot?"

"Eight. The ship is supposed to leave at ten-forty."

"Right. Shake Mikey and wake him up. We leave in ten. I'm going to scout the front."

He lifted his jacket from a hook near the door and draped it over the pulse rifle. No sense in scaring the civilians. A quick check of the lobby and the front of the guest quarters revealed nothing more threatening than a pair of data technicians sipping coffee on a bench near the entrance to the tube station.

He returned to the room to find Grace dressed in traveling clothes--slacks and a light jacket. Mike was up and had packed Deuce's kit in a shoulder bag.

"I put your share of our fee in there, too," Mike said softly. "Fifty-five hundred yuan. You may need it."

"What about you, bro?" Deuce asked. "Not packed?"

"No," said Mike. "I'm staying on Ceres. You go with Grace, I'll catch up to you on Delilah."

Deuce frowned. "Why?"

"There's a reason Jones wants to spy on the Kwai's and it's here on Ceres. I'll help you get Grace to the spaceport, then see what I can find out here."

Deuce shook his head. "Don't like that much. Too risky."

"Remember what I said last night. You can't protect Grace forever. If I know what Jones wants, maybe I can persuade him she's not a threat."

"I understand that. Still don't mean I like it."

Mile just shrugged but didn't say anything more.

Deuce took the lead, placing Grace behind him with Mike in the rear. He kept the pulse rifle, still draped in the jacket, at low ready. Mike had his hand in his jacket pocket, gripping the needler. They crossed the wide junction of passageways that fronted the guest quarters and headed toward the tube station. The Dragons jumped them as they passed the last corridor before the station entrance.

Lucas stepped out from the side corridor flanked by two more big men in dark suits. All three of them held short barreled pneumatics . Lucas sported a transparent splint on his wrist but otherwise looked none the worse for wear. Deuce swung toward him, leveling the pulse rifle. Mike grunted a warning as two more Dragons stepped out of the tube station.

"I told you we'd be back," said Lucas. "You can still walk away if Grace comes with us. This isn't your fight, soldier."

Deuce thumbed the safety off the pulse rifle. "Not gonna happen," he said.

Lucas smiled slightly as he raised the pneumatic. The smile froze on his face as a bolt from the pulse rifle burned through his chest. Deuce was already leaping to one side as Lucas began to fall. The pulse rifle sizzled again and the Dragon to Lucas's right went down. From behind him, Deuce could hear the distinct snap-ping sound of a needler. The remaining Dragon in front of him fell as Mike's needle stuck in his neck.

Deuce rolled to his back as his shoulder hit the deck and swung the pulse rifle to cover the Dragons from the tube station. Pneumatic rounds spalled off the deck next to him. Mike cried out and fell, clutching his thigh. The needler clattered on the deck. Deuce fired twice and dropped one of the Dragons. The second man ducked behind a support pillar and the bolt of coherent energy cracked and sparked as it dissipated through the pillar.

Deuce rolled to his left and came up onto his knees, swinging the pulse rifle to cover the pillar. He saw the barrel of the pneumatic, wide as a tunnel, pointing straight at his head and knew he was an instant too slow.

He heard the sound of a needler and the pneumatic wavered, then dropped to the deck as the Dragon holding it crumpled. Deuce rose to his feet and lowered the pulse rifle.

"Easy, Grace," he said. "You got him. I'm to your right and I'm gonna take that needler. Okay?"

She nodded but held the needler in a two handed grip, still pointing it at the Dragon on the deck. Two needles protruded from the man's neck. Deuce reached out and closed his hand gently on the needler. She released it and stepped into his arms.

"Mikey, you okay?" Deuce asked.

"I'm alive. Hurts like hell, though."

Deuce released Grace and knelt next to Mike who sat on the deck with a bloody hand clutching the wound in his leg. Deuce gently examined the wound and flexed Mike's knee and hip.

"Clean wound," he said. "Through and through. Missed the bone. Can you move it?"

"Yeah," Mike said, hissing as Deuce hauled him to his feet. "Not going to get very far, though."

"Just need to get to the tube station. I can carry you that far."

Mike pulled away, wincing as he limped on his injured leg. "Get Grace to the spaceport. Take her to Delilah. Watch over her. I'll meet you on Delilah in week or so."

"Mike, don't be stupid. We gotta be someplace else when the cops show up."

Mike shook his head. "If somebody isn't here when the cops show up, that freighter will never leave the dock. There are five dead Dragons here."

"Only three," Deuce said. "The needler's loaded with sleepers."

"All the more reason I need to stay. You want them to be the only ones the cops talk to?"

"This ain't your fight, Mike. I shouldn't have dragged you into it, but I ain't leaving you behind."

Mike grabbed him by the shoulder. "You're not. This is a tactical retreat. Think of me as the rear guard." He winced again and laughed.

Deuce frowned. "No jokes, Mike."

"Not joking big brother. Take Grace and go. I'll have your back. It'll be okay."

Deuce held his eye for a moment then drew him close. "Ma told me to look out for you."

"And you have," said Mike. "I'll keep the cops busy until you're on your way."

Deuce nodded and slung the pulse rifle over his shoulder. He took Grace by the arm and steered her into the tube station. After another backward glance at Mike, he entered the code for the spaceport and a capsule detached itself from the stream and hissed to a stop in front of them. Deuce popped open the hatch and helped Grace into the front seat. He stowed the pulse rifle behind the second seat and climbed in next to her. The hatch swung closed and the capsule sped off into the tube. Grace clung to his arm. Deuce stared into the blank darkness as the capsule sped along.

"Will he be alright?" Grace asked. "Mike. I mean."

"Hope so."

"Was he right? The needler was loaded with sleeper darts?"


"Then the man I shot isn't. . ."

"Dead?" said Deuce. He put his arm around her. "No. He'll wake up in a few hours with a hell of a headache, that's all."

Grace lay her head on his shoulder. "Good."

"Good shooting for a bind girl, though," Deuce said. Grace smiled and looked up at him. He lifted her chin with the thumb and forefinger of his free hand and kissed her upturned lips. She kissed him back and he held her close for several heartbeats. "Well, alright then," he said when he could breathe again.

The capsule chimed before Grace could answer and began slowing to stop at the spaceport. The hatch hissed open and Deuce jumped out. He retrieved his pulse rifle before helping Grace out.

"What freighter are we looking for?"

"The Tokai Maru, dock 34," she said. "What time is it?"

"Quarter to eight. Plenty of time."

Grace nodded, holding tightly to his arm. Deuce scanned the glowing status display hanging above the concourse and found the right dock. The spaceport was empty save a few crewmen milling about the transients lounge. Ceres was an industrial port. No one visited casually. Most loading and off-loading was automated and freighter crews tended to stay aboard ship for a quick departure once their load out was finished.

They found dock 34 at the far end of the main concourse. Deuce thumbed the intercom button next to the airlock. After a few seconds a tinny voice answered.

"Yeah? Who the hell are you?"

Deuce looked into the video pickup. "Name's Gulbrandsen. I brought your fare." he moved so that the pickup focused on Grace.

"You're early," the man on the intercom said.

"I didn't want to miss the boat," Grace said. "Li made it clear you wouldn't wait for me."

"You got the cash?" Grace nodded. "Then kiss your boyfriend good-bye and come on aboard."

"Change of plans. I'm coming, too," said Deuce.

"Not the deal, friend. One passenger only."

"Two or not at all. I'll pay."

The man on the intercom didn't answer right away. Then he said, "Ten thousand."

"Three," said Deuce. "Plus the three she's already paid you."

"Three thousand was the security deposit. She still owes me two. Ten thousand for the two of you."

"I got fifty-five hundred cash on me," Deuce said. "That's eighty-five hundred all together. Take it or I make a call to customs about the contraband you've got in your lifeboats." The threat was a wild guess, Deuce knew, but smuggling was a way of life for Belt pilots and he figured the odds were on his side.

"You're bluffing."

"Okay, let's make a call and find out." Deuce kept his voice flat and matter of fact.

"Alright," the man growled. "Eighty-five. And you better have the cash."

The airlock hissed and opened. Deuce cradled the pulse rifle under his arm and guided Grace through the lock. The inner hatch opened into the control room of the freighters travel head. To their right was a command chair and an control panel facing a large view screen. To the left, a hatch led to the rest of the ship.

"Lose the hardware and show me some money," said a voice from their left.

Deuce looked toward the voice and saw a tall figure half concealed behind the hatch coaming. The man's face was in shadow but the arm holding the pneumatic was clearly visible. Deuce carefully lowered the pulse rifle to the floor and held out his hands, palms open.

"Easy, friend," he said. "I'm gonna get the cash out of my kit."

The tall man stepped out from the hatch, still holding the pneumatic leveled at Deuce's head. He wore a one-piece jumpsuit with a Ceres Mining and Manufacturing logo on the left chest area. His shaved scalp gleamed in the light of the control room and a sparse red beard covered his chin. His hand shook slightly as he stepped forward and nudged the pulse rifle out of Deuce's reach with his foot.

Deuce pulled a bundle of notes from his kit bag and showed it to the pilot. The tall man eyed him cautiously, then motioned with his free hand. Deuce stood and held out the cash. As the pilot's finger touched the bundle, Deuce let it drop. The tall man made a grab for the cash and Deuce surged forward, driving his forearm into the pilot's throat. He grabbed the pneumatic with his other hand and wrenched it free. The pilot fell to his knees coughing and clutching at his neck.

"Jesus, man," coughed the pilot. "You like to killed me."

Deuce held the pneumatic pointed at the floor. "We had a deal. I don't like having guns pointed at me."

"A man's gotta protect himself." The tall man took a deep wheezing breath and picked up the bundle of cash. He struggled to his feet. "You're the one who came in here packing hardware."

Deuce smiled. "A man's gotta protect himself." He reversed the pneumatic and offered it butt first to the pilot. "We good?"

He took the weapon and tucked it into his belt. Then he fanned the cash in his hand and did a quick count. He nodded. "We're good. You're Gulbrandsen? I'm Tucker. Pick up your gear and follow me."

Tucker led them down a narrow passageway to a cluster of tiny compartments that opened off of a common dining area. He pointed to the right.

"That one's yours. I'm in the middle. That one is Sato's. He's the engineer; sleeps with his precious engines most of the time. You won't see much of him but don't mess with his cabin. He's real twitchy about people messing with his stuff."

Deuce led Grace to the small cabin. A single bunk was attached to the bulkhead on the left. A water dispenser, small sink and toilet unit and a battered metal and plastic chair completed the furnishings. Grace sat on the bunk as Deuce stowed his kit and the pulse rifle under it. He stood in the center of the cabin and stretched his arms. His fingertips brushed the bulkheads on either side. 

"Are you okay?" he asked, looking down at her. She nodded, still clutching her small travel bag. "You want me to stow that for you?"

She shook her head and began groping in the bag she held. Her movements became more frantic as tears flooded her eyes and ran down her cheeks. Finally she found what she was looking for and pulled out a handful of hundred yuan notes.

"I'll pay you the rest when I can," she said, pushing the cash toward him.

"You don't owe me anything," Deuce said.

"But you gave Tucker all the money you earned. I can't let you do that."

Deuce sat on the bunk next to her and covered the hands with his. "Yes, you can. I want to do this, Grace. I'd just blow it on something stupid anyway."

She continued to push the money into his hands for a second, then gave up. He took the cash from her and tucked it back into her bag. He closed the bag and put it next to his kit on the deck under the bunk. He started to stand up, but her hands found his again and she held them tightly.

"Don't leave me, Deuce. I don't think I can do this alone."

He pulled her close and kissed her. The kiss lasted a long time. Then Deuce reached out, closed the hatch and turned off the light. They hardly noticed when the travel head disengaged from the dock and boosted up to the orbiting engineering module and cargo spine that comprised most of the bulk of the Tokai Maru.

A few hours after the ship left Ceres orbit, Deuce emerged from the cabin and surveyed the small common area of the living quarters. Tucker looked up from a bowl of noodles with a sly smile but had the good sense to keep silent after a glare from Deuce.

"Food dispenser's on the starboard bulkhead," was all he said as he slurped noodles.

Deuce nodded his thanks and dialed up a couple of ramen bowels. He returned to the small cabin with the steaming food and closed the door again.

Delilah was antegrade relative to Ceres and the downhill run only took three days, even for a large freighter like the Tokai. Deuce and Grace spent much of the voyage in the tiny cabin, oblivious to the passage of time.

"What about Customs?" Deuce asked as Tucker guided the travel head into Delilah's huge cargo dock. He and Grace stoop behind the command chair where Tucker sat.

"This is Delilah, man. Nobody cares who comes and goes. Customs won't look past my manifest." He engaged the landing skids and settled the craft to the deck. The dock pressurized with a hiss of fog and vapor and the gravity generators spun up to one G.

Tucker turned his head to look at Grace. "Welcome to Delilah, the ass end of the solar system." Grace just smiled and Tucker shrugged.

Deuce looked out through the forward view screen. "Company," he said. The personnel lock hissed open and a small thin man stepped into the dock. "I thought you said Customs wouldn't care who came and went."

Tucker looked closely at the man crossing the dock toward them. "Shit," he whispered. "That ain't Customs. He's Patel, an enforcer for the Dragons." He looked at Grace again. "Who did you piss off, lady?"

Deuce kept his eye on the approaching figure as he dropped his kit to the deck and swung the pulse rifle down from his shoulder. "Stay here, Grace. Tucker, can you close the forward hatch from here?"


"Then as soon as I clear the outer hatch, close it and seal it tight."

"No Sven," Grace said. "Stay here. He can't get in without help. He can't, right Tucker?"

"Not without a laser torch. 'Course, we can't get out past him either."

Deuce touched Grace on the arm. "And that's why you're going to seal that hatch after me. If he's alone, I can take him. If he's got help, you and Tucker can hole up here until Mike can get you out."

He flicked the pulse rifle's safety off and the reaction chamber whined as it charged up. He walked over to the forward hatch and opened it. "Seal the outer door as soon as I'm outside," he said to Tucker.

Deuce stepped into the lock and closed the hatch. He brought the pulse rifle up to his shoulder and opened the outer hatch. He stepped through and swept the rifle right to cover the man standing in the open dock. The hatch hissed closed behind him. The other man didn't move.

"I'd appreciate it if you'd point that rifle elsewhere, soldier," he said.

Deuce kept the weapon leveled at him. "Who are you and what do you want?"

"My name's Ashok Patel. I have a message for Grace Tyler from my boss, Colin Jones. I think you know who he is."

"I know. Give me the message; I'll pass it along to Grace."

Patel smiled. "Made herself another friend, did she? Okay, soldier we'll do it your way." His voice hardened. "As soon as you lower that pulse rifle. We'll give you a pass on killing Lucas. I never liked the little bastard anyway. But this deal is only good right here, right now."

Deuce hesitated, the moved the pulse rifle to low ready. "What you got to say?"

"Tell your new girlfriend she's on her own from now on. As long as she stays away from our business interests, she's free to ply her trade wherever she likes."

Deuce twitched the rifle up. "Watch your tone. She ain't a whore."

Patel smiled thinly. "Whatever you say, soldier. That's the deal. Tell her if she shows her pretty face on Ceres again, she's dead." He turned his back and walked away as if Deuce wasn't there.

"Does it work both ways?" Deuce called after him.

Patel stopped and looked over his shoulder. "How's that?"

"If I see you or any of your boys near Grace, do I get to shoot you?"

"Don't push your luck, soldier."

Deuce sighted along the barrel of the pulse rifle. "Ain't never been lucky. But I am a damn good shot."

Patel eyed him coolly. "I'll remember that." He turned again and walked out of the dock.

Deuce lowered the pulse rifle and rubbed his scalp. The hatched hissed open behind him. Tucker and Grace stood in the lock.

"I told you to wait inside," said Deuce.

"I told Tucker to bring me out," answered Grace. "I'm through with hiding."

"No need now; as long as you stay away from the Dragons, they'll give you a pass. Must be something big going on back on Ceres, or they wouldn't be so hot to keep you away from the Kwai's."

Grace shivered. "I don't ever plan to go back there again."

Deuce smiled. "Good." He took her hand and slung the pulse rifle. "You know a decent place to rent a room here, Tucker?"

He grinned. "My cousin has a nice place. Only twenty yuan a night, meals included."

Deuce laughed. "For twenty yuan, your cousin better be a damn good cook."

"She is," Tucker nodded eagerly. "Come on. Her place is just three decks down and a little west of here."

Tucker's cousin proved to be a very good cook indeed. The room was spacious by Belt standards, clean and simply furnished. Deuce sent a message to Mike over the public net and they settled down to wait for a reply.

Mike arrived three days later to find Deuce and Grace sharing breakfast. He noticed the change in them as he sat down at the table and poured some coffee from the carafe in the center.

"You two look like an old married couple," he said, sipping the hot liquid.

Grace smiled and Deuce leaned back in his chair rubbing his scalp. "Well, now. Hadn't really thought much on that," he said.

Mike laughed. "Just saying, that's all. I guess you got the word that Grace is free to go as far as the Dragons are concerned."

Deuce nodded. "A guy named Patel, enforcer type with a real high opinion of himself, met us at the dock. Said Grace was off the hook but oughta stay away from Ceres if she wanted to keep breathing."

Mike nodded. "She'd be advised to avoid Tharsis as well. Jones seemed keen to keep her away from anywhere they had 'business interests', as he put it."

Deuce shrugged. "No problem. There's lots of clubs in the Belt or on the Moon she can sing at."

Grace shifted uneasily and Mike said softly, "But that creates a problem for Grace doesn't it?"

"Say what?"

Mike took her hand. She made as if to pull it away but stopped. "When were you going to tell him?" Mike asked. "Jones had it figured out. That's why he sent Lucas after you. Once I convinced him that exposing you solved his problem, he agreed that killing you was bad business no matter how the war played out."

"Tell me what," demanded Deuce. "Grace, what's he talking about?"

"Grace hasn't played straight with you, big brother. Those fancy implants of hers are a little too high end even for a rich gangster like Jones. They're military grade technology."

"Sven, I meant to tell you once the Tokai left orbit," Grace interrupted. "But then you were willing to give up everything just to keep me safe and we kissed and it all got complicated." She wiped a tear from her eye and sat straight in the chair, her face suddenly hard. "I'm Martian, first last and always. It wasn't the Dragons who found me in that dropshaft plaza in Planetia, it was the Third Directorate. I was on Ceres working for Martian Intelligence."

"Metternich," spat Deuce. "You're working for Metternich."

"I tried to let you know in the club, when we first talked, when we drank that toast. You used to work for them, too."

"Nothing like a termination order to cure a person of that."

"I was supposed to work inside the Dragons organization," Grace said in a rush, as if Deuce would get up and leave before she could finish. "They've always been strong in Tharsis, even during the war and we still don't know where their base in the Belt is hidden. I was supposed to find out."

"Why? So the Metternich could take it out and break up their operations in Tharsis?" asked Deuce. "I ain't never been partial to them, but if the Dragons are making things hard for Colonel Metternich, then more power to them."

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you, Sven. And for what it's worth, when I paid Tucker to get me out of Ceres, it wasn't Lucas I was afraid of. I knew by then that I couldn't go through with the mission. The things I learned about how the Death Squads were purging Tharsis and Planetia were unbelievable at first. But the Dragons have sources in both places and the truth is getting out through them."

Deuce exhaled loudly. "Well, you played me to the end. I'll get my kit and Mike and I will shove off. " He stood. "Have a nice life, Grace."

She reached out and grabbed his hand. "No, Sven, wait," she pleaded. "I know I wasn't honest with you, but what we had on the Tokai, and here on Delilah, that's all real. I didn't mean to have feelings for you. I tried not to. I tried to just play the part and keep you close for protection. But you were willing to give up everything you'd earned to stay with me. You never pushed or pressured me. How could I not love that?" Deuce didn't move and she pulled his hand to her lips and kissed it. "Please, Sven. Let me start over."

"It takes more than a few nights of hot sex to make this alright, Grace." Deuces voice was soft and quavered as he spoke. "How can I trust anything you say?"

"Seems to me, the lady's asking for a chance to earn that," Mike said. "For what it's worth, brother, Jones intercepted a copy of the letter of resignation she sent to Mars just before you met up with her at that bar."

"Honto?” Deuce looked down at Grace.


"Metternich will be out for your blood, too," he said, taking her hand in both of his.

She nodded. "You think you're the only enemy of the state out here in the Belt?"

He pulled her to her feet and took her into his arms. "Don't you ever lie to me again."

"Never, Sven." She turned her face up to his and he kissed her, long and slow.

"Well, then," said Mike. "I guess I'll just leave you two alone. And since it sounds like you blew all your cash again, I guess I'll have to spring for our passage home."

Deuce lifted his head long enough to say, "I'll pay you back, bro."

"Sure you will." Mike turned and left them there, still locked in each other's arms.


Deuce shook his head as he came back to the present. They still sat on the floor of the nightclub on Highpoint, Grace nestled under his arm. He felt a surge of regret for what might have been.

"We could have had a good life together," sighed Grace, echoing his feelings.

"I thought we were building that."

She sat up straighter. "But you never said anything. You never asked."

"No, I didn't. Didn't think I had to," Deuce said. "I'm asking now, Grace."

"What?" she gasped. She pulled away but he held her.

"Hear me out, Grace. I didn't know what I wanted until now. Wouldn't have worked anyhow, not with the way I been living. But things are different. We, Zack and me, got steady work. A real business. You and I could make a go of it now."

"No, Sven, we couldn't. It's too late for us."

Deuce gripped her arms. "No it isn't. You've got to believe that. I won't let you go again." His link chimed but he ignored it as he searched Grace's face for some hint of agreement.

"Deuce, this is a priority over ride," Sylvia's voice said in his ear. "Zack wants you back on the Profit right away. We have a job."

"Then Zack can call me himself and not get his AI to do it."

"That was uncalled for Deuce," Sylvia's voice was cold and hurt at the same time. "I may be the ship's AI, but I have feelings too."

"What is it, Sven?" asked Grace.

"Call from my ship's AI. We have a job. Zack wants me back aboard ASAP."

"So go. I'm not going anywhere. Not for six weeks anyway. That's how much I have left on this contract."

"I'm not leaving until you tell me you'll think about what I said."

Grace sighed. "Yes, Sven. I'll think about it. If you come back. . ."

"I'll be back," Deuce interrupted.

"If you come back, we'll talk," she said.

Deuce pulled her close and kissed her. She touched his cheek as he started to turn away.

"I want to believe, Sven," she whispered. "Come back to me."

He nodded and jumped to his feet. "On my way, Sylvia," he said into his link. He lifted Grace to her feet, touched her lips gently and then turned and walked out of the club.

Grace watched him until he disappeared through the door. The tears she had held back began to flow down her cheeks and a single sob escaped her.

"Touching," said a male voice from behind her.

"Shut up," she said without turning around.

"When are you planning to tell him about his daughter?"

"I said shut up," she shouted whirling to face the man behind her. "I won't do that to him as long as you people have her."

"Why not? With a little leverage, he could be useful to us." The man stepped onto the stage from the deep shadow in the back of the club. He reached out and touched Grace's shoulder in a possessive way.

She pulled away and laughed harshly. "If you think that, you don't know Sven Gulbrandsen."

The man touched her again, reinforcing his right to do so. She shuddered but didn't pull back again. "We know him very well. And you're right. If he knows about your little girl he'll come after her. That may be to our benefit under the right circumstances."

"He'll kill you."

"He'll try," the man corrected her. "And when he does, he'll draw Zack Mbele into it. And Mbele is the real target. We've gone to a lot of trouble to place you here just when Mbele's ship would be on Highpoint. If we decide Gulbrandsen should know about his daughter, you will tell him."

She stood rigid, head high, but said nothing.

The man chuckled softly. "Stiff necked as always. You'd better get back to work now. You have a show to get ready for." He stroked her hair once before turning and disappearing into the shadows again.

She heard the back hatch open and close as he left the club. Only then did her shoulders sag. She walked slowly to the piano and began playing. It was an old sad song about love and loss called "Red Sand".

















I was up to my elbows in tangled conduit, trying to trace an intermittent short, when Deuce stomped up the loading ramp and into the cargo bay. His face was grim and there was murder in his eye. Having seen that look before, I knew that anyone who got in his way would regret it, if they survived. I got carefully to my feet but he didn’t seem to notice me. He crossed the deck to the weapons locker without a glance in my direction.

“Everything Jake, Deuce?” I asked, keeping my tone casual.

He thumbed the lock, swung the locker’s armored hatch open, and pulled out his pulse rifle. I crossed the deck toward him as he snapped a fresh power pack into the stock, then put two more in his pocket. He buckled on a web belt with a holster and four ammo pouches. His blackened steel Huang pneumatic went into the holster and he loaded spare magazines into the pouches.

“We going to war, Deuce?” I asked. Still he didn’t answer. “I should let Sylvia know if we need to button up the ship.” Sylvia was the Profit’s Artificial Intelligence and controlled all of the defensive systems.

At the mention of her name, she chimed on my link, the tiny data node embedded in my right mastoid bone. “What’s going on, Boss?”

“Not now, Sylvia,” I said subvocally, the nanofibers in my larynx picking up the nerve impulses and converting them to speech.

Deuce didn’t say anything, didn’t seem to notice the slight pause as I communicated with Sylvia. He strapped a calf sheath to his leg and slid a long narrow bladed knife into it.

“Deuce, what’s wrong?” I reached out and gripped his upper arm; dangerous given his present mood, but I was really concerned now. He glared at me for a second and then seemed to control himself. He shrugged my hand off.

“It’s personal, LT. Nothin’ to do with you or the ship.” He pulled out a small backpack and swung the locker closed. He turned and stalked through the aft hatch toward his workshop.

I didn’t try to stop him. At just a couple of millimeters shy of two meters tall and massively built, trying to stop Deuce was like trying to stop a rockslide. He’d get where he wanted to go anyway and you’d be on the deck wondering what hit you.

We were at Highpoint, one of the rich LaGrange arcologies, for some resupply and repair time. It was a bit more expensive than other shipyards, but Cleo, my ex-wife and current business partner, had made a killing on a recent stock deal and we could afford it. She thought that having some work done by the chandlers here would get us noticed and be good for business.

I had to admit, the shipyard here was better equipped than the one at our home base of Port Tycho on the Moon. For once, the Profit would get a full overhaul of her Moss drives and inertial dampers. Then we’d show the charter fleet what a fast interceptor could do.

I frowned at the idea of thinking like a charter boat captain. A year ago, I’d have wanted the extra speed to outrun the Federales. Now here I was being all respectable and businesslike.  I sighed. Being a businessman opened doors and opportunities that would never have been possible back in my old freelancing days. It was nice to be respectable, all right. It was just so damn boring.

Deuce had spent the better part of the two days we’d been here away from the ship. Just where, he hadn’t said and I hadn’t wanted to pry. It was unusual, though. Deuce considered the Profit his only home and since his stepbrother Mike had been killed last year, he had no other family but the ship’s crew – Cleo, Rabbit, my old cellmate and the best data slicer in the system, and me.

Deuce had been with me since Special Forces Basic, back when we were both in the Martian Third Directorate. He’d avoided the Black Ops Squads and the purges that had swept me into The Bear- the infamous Brunault Prison. I’d spent two years in that hole as Hans Metternich drove the Directorate into dark madness. It was Deuce who had been there to pick up the pieces and take care of me when I staggered out at the end of the Reunification War. He was the closest thing I had to a brother and I’d be damned if he was going to blow me off when he was in trouble.

I followed Deuce down the passageway, skirting the bulge of the reactor and drive unit. The hatch to Deuce’s workshop appeared to my right. It was open and I could hear Deuce rummaging through his locker. I paused at the hatch coaming and looked in.

Deuce’s workshop doubled as his private quarters. It might be a combination machine shop and electronics junkyard, but it was also his home. The bulkhead next to his locker was hung with tools and instruments. A workbench beneath the tool racks held a partially disassembled plasma injector and a riot of spare parts and components. In contrast to the chaos on the workbench, Deuce’s bunk was tightly made with military precision. A broken hologram of Mike and Mike’s wife, Mariko, taken on their wedding day, was carefully centered on a small shelf at the head of the bunk. 

Deuce stood with his back to me. He pulled a shirt and light jacket out of the locker and stuffed them into his small backpack. The pulse rifle lay on his bunk and he’d added a pair of throwing knives in wrist sheathes to his arsenal.

This was serious. The last time Deuce had armed himself to the teeth, we’d gone up against Colin Jones and his Red Dragon gang on their own turf. Jones was dead now and the Dragons were too disorganized with infighting to make a serious run at us. So who was Deuce planning to pick a fight with?

“What’s going on Deuce?” I asked.

He didn’t look at me. “I told you it was nothin’ to do with the ship, LT. It’s my problem. I’ll solve it.”

“Sure you will, Deuce. But not solo. That’s not how we do things on this ship.”

“That’s how it’s gotta be this time,” he said as he sealed the backpack and tossed it on the bunk next to the pulse rifle. He finally turned to face me. His expression was flat and hard as moon rock. The only hint of his seething rage was the flushed skin that showed through the fine stubble of his scalp and the slight quiver of his blond beard as he ground his teeth.

I folded my arms and leaned against the hatch coaming. Deuce never talked much and whatever he’d been doing for the past couple of days was his business. If he wanted to tell me about it, he would in his own time. But this was different. He was arming for a war and if the last couple of days had anything to do with that, I figured it might be time for me to get nosey.

“What have you been up to the last couple of days?” I asked.

“That’d be my business, LT. And I’ll thank you to get out of my way. I don’t have a lot of time.”

“Not until you tell me what’s going on. You don’t go to war on this ship without my say so. We’re family here. Maybe not blood, but if someone takes on one of us, they have to take us all.” A look of real pain crossed his face. I hardened my tone. “I’m not letting you leave here until you tell me what’s going on with you.”

He smiled grimly. “You think you can stop me, LT?”

“Don’t try me, Deuce. We don’t want to go down that road.”

He glared at me for a second, then looked away, the pain returning to his face. “Aw, hell, LT. You know I couldn’t raise a hand against you. Just let me go. I can’t tell you why, just let me go.”

“Damn it, Deuce. Why can’t you?” I took a step toward him, my hands low and open. “When I was in the Bear, you never gave up on me. As soon as the war ended, you packed up and headed for Mars. You didn’t even know if I was alive. And when Wu had me trussed up and was ready to turn me into his latest meat sculpture, it was you who pushed Cleo into coming after me. I can’t let you do this alone. I owe you too much blood and sweat.”

I moved closer; close enough for him to tag me if he wanted to. He just might if I pushed him too hard. Instead he shook his head and a shudder ran through him as if he were cold.

“They’ve got my daughter, LT,” he cried. “I’ve got to get her back, but they’ll kill her if I bring anyone else in on it.”

I took a step back. Deuce had a daughter?


Chapter 2


A daughter? The idea of Deuce having a child seemed as unlikely as being able to breathe vacuum. I’d never known him to spend much time with women. Not that he didn’t like them, but his liaisons tended to be one or two night affairs, usually with women he met in dives like the Blue Booby back in Port Tycho. It wasn’t likely he’d know their real names, much less have a child with one of them.

“You never mentioned a daughter,” I said.

Deuce shrugged. “Didn’t know about her myself until a couple of days ago. Grace and me, that’s her mother, Grace; we hadn’t been in touch for a few years. I found Grace here on Highpoint when we got in a couple of weeks back, with the Guthrie charter.”

I nodded. Sam Guthrie was a rich businessman who’d chartered the Profit for a run from the Moon to Highpoint. He’d been a good sort. A no bullshit, hardheaded man and a veteran of the war like Deuce and me. I liked him. His wife had been a silly, status seeking harpy and his teenage daughter a borderline nymphomaniac, but far be it from me to criticize a man for the women in his life. After all, I’d married Cleopatra Lee, divorced her and was on the verge of marrying her again.

“Grace and me didn’t have a lot of time together. The ship left kind of sudden-like on the Ceres job and I told her I’d be back for her.”

We’d just gotten back from Ceres two days earlier. Deuce had obviously been with this ‘Grace’ since we returned. That job had involved Sam Guthrie as well, and I owed him a big favor as a result, although it had profited him as well as our own pockets. The news nets were still buzzing about the discovery that natural glowgems were the larvae of an alien life form. More muted was the information that synthetic gems were inert. The gem market had taken a hit and Cleo had made us a lot of money selling gems stocks short. Sam had followed her advice and made his own killing, so maybe he wouldn’t be calling his marker any time soon.

“When did Grace tell you about the girl?” I asked.

“The night we got back from Ceres. I went straight to the club where she sings and bribed the head waiter to give me a table right up front.” He smiled. “I don’t think she expected me to come back. She nearly choked up when she saw me. Had to restart her first number. I stayed after the club closed. We talked a lot. Don’t really remember all what was said, but finally she told me about Ingrid.”

“Ingrid,” I repeated. “Is that the girl’s name?”

Deuce nodded. “It was my mother’s name. I told Grace about her once.” He smiled again. “You should see her, LT. She looks just like my Ma when she was a little girl.”

“You’ve seen her?” I asked, surprised. If this was a scam, it wasn’t likely she’d risk introducing Deuce to the girl until later, after some money had changed hands.

“Yesterday, at breakfast. Grace has a nanny who watches Ingrid most nights.”

I thought carefully about how to say what I needed to say next. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Deuce,” I said. “But you must have wondered, must have asked yourself . . .”

“Was she mine?” Deuce said.

I nodded.

“I admit to havin’ my own doubtfuls at first,” he said. “But Grace had the Birth Registration and the DNA print. She was born about nine months after I went to Mars to fetch you out of the Bear. She’s mine, sure and certain.”

Deuce picked up the backpack and unsealed it. He reached in and pulled out a small holoprojector. He held it in the palm of his hand and pressed the base. The five centimeter tall projection showed a little girl with white-blond hair pulled back in pigtails. She wore a dark blue skirt and white shirt, some kind of school uniform by the look of it, and looked out shyly from beneath long blond eyelashes. Her eyes were a deep blue, almost violet. Deuce’s face softened as he looked at the image. She was a beautiful child and I could see how she’d captivated him.

“When did they take her?” I asked.

Deuces face grew dark again and he turned off the projector. “This morning. She and the nanny were on the way home after shopping for a new dress, something pretty to show off for me.” His voice broke and his fists clenched as he said it.

“Easy Deuce,” I said quietly. “We’ll get her back.” Provided this ‘Grace’ person answers a few questions first, I thought.

He shook his head. “They said I had to come alone or they’d kill her.” He held up a hand when I started to speak. “I ain’t stupid, LT. I know it’s the standard threat. But somethin’ about the way the message was worded made me believe they’d know if I wasn’t alone. And they’d do what they said without worrying overmuch about it.”

“What exactly did the message say?”

“It was distorted, run through a voice print scrambler so’s it wouldn’t be traceable. The voice said First Sergeant Sven Gulbrandsen should come alone and unarmed to a certain bar on deck 34 at 23:00 tonight or Ingrid would be found in a recycling bin with her throat cut. They were real specific about what they’d do to her. I got the impression they were military, or at least military trained. I gotta assume they’re serious players, at least ‘til Ingrid’s safe. I can’t risk bringin’ you in, LT.”

I nodded toward the pulse rifle on the bunk. “You’re not exactly unarmed. I can see hiding the blades, maybe even the Huang. But where are you planning to hide the pulse rifle?”

“I ain’t planning on walking into that bar on their terms, LT. I figure to get there a few hours early, do a little recon and tuck the rifle away somewhere. Maybe under a table or in the head. Then watch the traffic in and out for a while. I should be able to spot them before they see me.  Whoever they send will have watchers. If I’m there first, I’ll see how they set up their surveillance. Take out the watchers first, then take the messenger and make him tell me where they have Ingrid.”

His plan was straight out of the Special Forces playbook and maybe tactically sound, for a four-man special operations team with good intel to back it up. Not workable for one man alone, no matter how capable. And if they had referred to Deuce by his real name and old rank, they had probably read that playbook. Hell, they may have written it. I knew some of the old Black Ops commandos had escaped Mars and were operating in the Belt. Hans Metternich himself was out there somewhere, although my crew and I were the only ones who knew it for certain. Was that why they had made this run at Deuce? Maybe. Metternich would look for leverage wherever he could find it. Hook Deuce and he’d have to know I’d step in to help.

“Think it through, Deuce,” I said. “You can’t cover all the angles alone. You might take one, even two, but they’ll have enough coverage to drop you before you get them all, and then where will Ingrid be?” He stiffened as if he to argue the point, but then his shoulders slumped and he nodded.

“You need a team to make that kind of thing work,” I went on. “And you can’t be sure the messenger will know anything useful; probably won’t if these guys are any good. Did they say anything else? Like what they wanted with you? Did they ask for any money?”

Deuce shook his head. “That’s all. Don’t make any sense to me. I don’t have any money to speak of, and the Revolution and war were a long time ago. Hell, I was just a non-com. I didn’t have access to anything really important. So what do they want?”

“Any enemies I don’t know about?” I asked.

He actually laughed at that. “You’re better at makin’ enemies than me, LT. At least the kind who’d do something like this.”

I had to agree with him on that. Deuce’s enemies tended to be the kind who’d come straight at you. No screwing around with kidnapping little girls when a knife in the guts would do as well and be a lot more satisfying. But in our years together, I’d managed to piss off some seriously dangerous people, and my enemies were Deuce’s by default.