Prelude

Deep space is so vast its true expanse cannot be truly understood and even mathematical expressions do little to really put it into perspective.

The Milky Way Galaxy has a diameter of 100,000 light years and is a good 1000 light years thick on average. There are a little over 400 Billion Stars and many more planets and moons.

Yet all the stars and all the matter of the galaxy takes up less space than 1 percent of the entire space the Galaxy occupies. So one would think that these vast empty and completely worthless near vacuum would be free of borders, territories and boundaries and yet there are and crossing them can be very dangerous.

The United Stars of the Galaxies claims most of the so called 'Upward Sector' of the Galaxy and physically occupies there alone over 900,000 Planets and locations. Add to this the areas of the 'Coreward Sector', the 'Large Magellan Cloud' and the 'Andromeda Galaxy', one stands in awe about the size and power of the Union. Yet it is insignificant in size and expansion compared to the 100 Billion Stars of the 'Upward Sector' alone.

Unlike in the core regions, a Space Bus is often the only means of travel on the untamed frontier regions of the Union. Braving many dangers, these coaches span, on schedule, vast distances of sparse populated space, teeming with privateers, Shiss Raiders, Kermac Sponsored Terror and the threat of the unknown.

It is the year 5030. The announcement of the Gray Leader of the Nul, one of the fiercest enemies of the United Stars, that his people and the Union are no longer enemies and that the Nul would begin the process of becoming a Union Member shocked and surprised everyone, especially of course, the Shiss and the Kermac led Galactic Council.

It would mean the end of the Free Space Treaty and of course the end of the Big Four, an arrangement that was seen by many as a guarantor of stability and peace. The Shiss knew it was the beginning of the end for their civilization. At that time no name struck more terror along the frontier between Union and Shiss space, than the name of Hazzzock, Gray Throated cousin to the First Nestling who would rather die than submit to Union rule…

Captain Sickles of the United Stars Army stood with his arms crossed beind his back looking outside the floor to ceiling view port gazing into the endless darkness of space. "Two point five trillion cubic light years in this sector alone, Jarvis. There should be room for all of us. The Union ,the Shiss, the Nul," He threw up his arms and turned to face the others present in his office "and heck even all the species of the Galactic Council should find all the space they need out there and not ever bother each other."

Lieutenant Jarvis Mentar, who always looked like a walking recruitment poster, said, "Sir, I doubt I am qualified to answer your questions. Besides we do not have to worry about the Nul anymore."

"Lieutenant Jarvis Mentar, for the blue Virgins sake, don't take everything so seriously. There is no one, not the Immortals, not Nelson and I doubt even that mysterious Dark One that is supposed to exist, that knows why we always end up on a collision course with others."

The Lieutenant pulled dark green pseudo leather gloves off his hands with slow measured moves, "Sir, it might be a lot of space out there, but I am glad the Union decided to establish borders and border posts like this one. I don't want Shiss or Kermac ships to roam freely between our star systems. They could bring long distance weapons to bear, establish secret bases, as I think they do anyway. It is them who have started every war and conflict."

The two men watched as a space bus departed, its' ISAH pods slowly turning from a red to a white glow, and then the bus vanished into a streak of light. Closely after the bus twenty Apache Army Gunships departed as well following the bus.

Captain Sickles was the Commandant of this Deep Space Fort, floating in deep space. It was established here because until only recently it was where the spheres of influence of the Shiss, the Nul and the Union had met.

Besides the Lieutenant there was a Union Ranger and a Purple Nul giant in the room.

The huge massive Nul stood like a menacing alien looking golem, making Captain Sickles feel small and glad that the always predicted war against the Nul would never happen. He wondered what really happened that made them so suddenly change their minds.

The conversation and his thoughts were interrupted as the Fort Systems transmitted the 06H00 bugle sound over all speakers announcing the official start of a new day.

The two United Stars Army Officers in the room faced the flag in the corner and saluted it.

The young Lieutenant, fresh out of West Point, gave the Ranger a disapproving look as he noticed the man not saluting the flag.

Lt. Mentar was certain that traveled looking Ranger would have never made it in the Army. The man obviously rejected good grooming habits as well as the dress code a Union representative should adhere to. He had long hair and a grizzled face. The Ranger wore a Shiss Leather jacket, Karthanian made pants and Terran All Terrain boots. The handle of a knife showed from the rim of one boot and an actually quite illegal SII Mark 11 in a low slung holster, also not regulation and made of leather. Mentar said after the last tone of the bugle faded. "You should look at yourself in the mirror, Ranger! You are representing the Union out there. Can you imagine what settlers and colonists say if they see a tramp like you?"

The Ranger's bright blue eyes gazed at the young officer and the smile he had in his tanned by a hundred suns face, "I can imagine what they would say if you showed up…"

Captain Sickles put his hand on the Lieutenant's shoulder, "He is a respected Ranger and we are glad for his service and Intel." The Captain then activated a three dimensional projection of the local region of space and the Ranger tipped his finger against five points of lights.

"These systems are full of Hazzzock's raiders. They've attacked every colony in this region. I've seen eight settlements burning and completely destroyed!" The Ranger then nodded to the impassive Nul standing there and said, "My friend here had a brush with them last night. Says they all had been Hazzzock's lizards.

The report had a striking effect on Sickles and the young Lieutenant. The Captain said, "So it is true, Hazzzock finally went over the edge. Reports of destroyed Colonies will stir up a Nest of Xunx at the Assembly."

The Ranger said, "I have been patrolling these parts for the last thirty years, Captain. There are Union Colonies, Free Colonies and settlements, A few Nul planets here and there, and the entire region claimed by the Shiss for over 20,000 years as theirs. Hazzzock is neither a fool, nor a force to be trifled with."

The huge Nul pointed at three other even closer systems, "We ran into very well armed Kashir Cruisers right here, eight of them. Hazzzock has the resources to buy the best Free Space markets offer."

The Captain rubbed his chin and said "Eight Kashir, you say, this close?"

The Lieutenant eyed the Nul with unveiled distrust and then leaned closer to the Captain, "How do we know he is not lying?"

The Ranger answered before the Captain could, "Shut him up, or I will!"

The Captain looked away from the projection and said to the Lieutenant. "He is Nul; they have hated the Shiss 10,000 years longer than us." Then he added, "Be careful Lieutenant, that ranger outranks both you and I."

The Nul moved only a few inches and said with his growling voice, "Our wise leader has decreed that we are now working together. I have known this ranger for many years, as my duty is somewhat similar. I trust and respect him and I do understand human innuendo very well. One more insult from you little Lieutenant and there will be an incident between our nations where I have to explain what happened to my wise Leader and your Captain will need a mop and a bucket to remove what's left of you!"

Before anything else could be said an N.C.O. opened the door, "Sir, urgent message from Benton's Colony."

Sickles impatiently gestured towards the GalNet Terminal, "Connect us right away."

The N.C.O sat down before the GalNet Terminal and keyed in the security code, "It is a High Priority Message, Sir!"

Sickles moved behind the N.C.O., "Well then put them on."

The N.C.O. made a few futile verbal attempts and then pulled out the rarely if ever used manual input board from its hidden compartment and typed a message.

The Captain impatiently said, "By the time you are done, I could have walked to Benton's Colony and got it in person."

The Ranger said, "That's the Problem with the Army, I would get my own messages and would be done by now."

Mentar made big eyes, "What a ridiculous suggestion. He is the Commandant of the Fort and that N.C.O. is the Signalman."

The N.C.O. turned to the Captain and said, "Benton's Colony is not receiving or sending. It looks almost as if someone destroyed the Relay buoys in that region."

Sickles drew in air sharply and said, "What did the caller say before you got disconnected?"

The N.C.O. answered, "Only two words, Sir. Hazzzock raiders."

Chapter 1: Departure

Rigo Colony, just about 2 light years from the Union Deep Space Fort Three-Corners, was a dull bone dry dust ball, and its only redeemable feature was a marginally breathable Nitrogen Oxygen atmosphere. That it was classified a Garden world was a local joke. Agatha Sprewell, president of the Rigo Colony Beautification Committee, of course took it very seriously. She and her eighteen member committee watered and groomed the Rigo Colony City Park. It featured a genuine Terran Oak and exactly 10 square meters of fenced in grass, also meticulously tended. The Water used had to be shipped in as well as the fertilizer.

The City of Rigo was as much a city as the little green square and one tree was a city park. It consisted of a main street centering on that park and a row of buildings, most of them Prefab colony-housing containers, extended with rock and mortar add-ons, paved sidewalks and canvas or Dura-Plast awnings

Not all of the signs were Holographic and some are simply painted or stenciled on a length of Dura-Plast. A few rugged open bed cargo skimmers lined up before the local Silver Hawk Emporium Dry Goods Store, their owners were local Cactus Farmers or Nodule collectors. Several varieties of Nopal Cactus grew well on Rigo's provided they received trickle irrigation, so the Cactus farmers eked out a living from the marginal profit between water prices and crop selling on the Xchange.

The Collection of Manganese nodules was another source of income. Manganese was useful and widely traded but not exactly a rare metal. The colony was a sleepy but slowly and steadily growing place. Now that the Nul were about to join the Union, it was very likely that this quiet planet and the other six planets in the system were going to turn into hot real estate property by becoming a nexus traffic point into the Nul region. The recent arrival of mysterious well-dressed tourists asking questions about the place or staking and measuring things were a good indication that this was not so far off in the future.

Across from the Dry Goods Store, was one of the two local Taverns, the Dust Guzzler, and it represented fifty percent of Rigo's Colony entertainment options.

K'tknnk, a Klack, stared with his almond shaped eyes towards the North End of the town, where a paved Duro-Crete Area and four Containers were stacked represented the Rigo Colony Space Port.

The Klack sipped from his sugar water and said to a Garbini hanging from the support beams holding up the Plasti roof above the side walk, "I think Baldi is going to be late today."

The Garbini uncoiled one of his tentacles, fished a bottle of Holstein Pils beer from an ice and water filled bucket right next to the broken beer vent-matic, while the tree polyp used another tentacle to swipe his credit strip across the reader of the Vending machine, as the reader was still working and paid for the beer. Then he pointed the neck of the bottle towards the space port and the sky, "Would not surprise me if Baldi won't show up at all. Not with Hazzzock's raiders attacking anything and everything."

A human joining them went through a similar ritual, paying for a bottle of Coke then took a sip of his soda, "Baldi will be here, I can hear the Arti's whistle already."

"What would I give for a set of human ears?" The Garbini sighed as they watched a small green dot of light grow bigger, descending from the otherwise bright featureless sky.

The Klack wiggled his antenna, "I'd trade in one of these."

The human laughed, "How about one ear for those handy tentacles. A pair of those and I could get my tools and hands into the tightest spots."

The Klack said, "Do you think Hazzzock will come here?"

The Garbini also shifted so he could better see the human, while the human said, "Hard to tell really. He's been the craziest Shiss lord and the lower color Throats follow him out of conviction not force. The Fort isn't far and the Army is watching for sure."

The Garbini returned his attention to the landing D 60LR Space bus and said, "Army my non existing ass, what we need here is a fleet base with a Battleship or two and a wing of Wolfcrafts."

The human finished his Coke and got another one, grinning as he noticed the billowing dust cloud of the landing bus rolling down Main Street, "I've got to agree with you on that one. Nothing makes them run faster than the sight of a Union Battleship." He then added, "Looks like Mrs. Sprewell's prized oak tree turned from green to dust brown again. She's going to have a fit and poor Mr. Sprewell will have to pay someone to wash the leaves again."

The Klack closed his mandibles in a menacing way, "Oh but there is one other thing; Shiss, Nul, Dai Pirates or whoever tries to tango with the Union; if they hear the Devi is on the way and our Eternal Warrior wants a word with them."

All three raised their drinks and the Garbini said, "I'll drink to that."

The three beings watched as many people came out of the buildings to see the biggest weekly event there was in town and on the planet: the arrival of the Space bus.

It wasn't one of the big new 3000 passenger deals they had running on the main line, but an old, sturdy Leyland Alexander D-60 Long Range.

It was not operated by one of the big Corporations either. Shipmaster Baldor "Baldi" Rickabough, the pilot of the D 60 never bothered to land the Coach on the Duro-Crete pad but right in the street and before the offices of the Coreward Space Bus Company and next to the other half of Rico's Colony entertainment and hospitality options, the Saresii Pleasures Tavern and Hotel.

Baldi landed here so his passengers did not have too far to walk for refreshments and rest and of course so he could more or less walk right into the Office and then after business was taken care of right into the Tavern.

The powder fine dust that was everywhere on this world and the reason why most NiOx breathers chose to wear filter masks before their faces still danced in billowing clouds around the now landed shuttle. Obscuring and engulfing the small crowd. The side air locks ramps and flight deck hatch opened at the same time.

Baldy, the pilot, and Emerson, his Engineer, gunner and flight deck attendant, stomped down the forward ramp and reached the ground just as the extending ramp did.

Baldi was sort of a local celebrity and some of the loungers and locals present were eager for recognition. Someone yelled, "How's things in Charles Port, Baldy?" Another voice called out, "Have a good trip?"

Baldi shook hands and smiled, "All still the same in Charles Port and trips been nice and quiet."

He pulled a small pack out of one of his many pockets and handed it to a Holdian, "As promised, I picked up your chew leaves at Charles Port."

The Holdian shrieked excitedly and then thanked Baldy.

Two armed guards shouldered their way through the crowd and one of them asked, "Did you bring the Credit Boxes?"

Emerson, a bulky Quadi-Ped, answered, "Yes it's up there in the Pilot's locker storage."

While the armed guards stomped up the forward ramp, passengers emerged from the open side air locks. It was only a handful this time and they almost immediately dispersed, some went across the street to the Dust Guzzler, some went to the Saresii Pleasure Tavern. The owner of the place thought that anything with the name Saresii would imminently be equated with beautiful women and sophistication, that the owner was actually from Tak and had never set foot on a Saresii world didn't bother the locals much.

One of the passengers, an expensively dressed blue skinned woman, stepped out from the air lock and pressed her gloved hand before her mouth and nose, apparently unprepared for the dust and the dry air. She wore a long dark gray skirted dress, as was fashionable for Thauran nobles. Around her shoulders was a gorgeous shimmering black fur lined cape with a voluminous hood drawn up. She appears somewhat out of place as she stepped from the landing ramp onto the dust covered pavement.

One of the beefy looking Cargo Handlers noticed her, wrestled another crate of prickly pears on the loading conveyor, wiped his hands and said, "Ma'am you might want to stretch your legs, the coach won't leave for another six or eight hours."

He got a better look at her face now and said, "I mean stretch your limbs, ma'am. We've gotta load the freight and service the engines."

Mrs. Luna Lodyn, the Thauran woman, clutching the cloak she had drawn about her. She looked tired, yet there was an impression of strength and character in her clear face as she gave the loader a faint smile and said, "Thank you." She then asked, "Is there some place where I can have a cup of tea?"

The word Tea or cup was not quite in the load handler's dictionary and he looked at her puzzled for a moment, then he removed his hat, scratched his head and said as politely as he could, "Well, ma'am, you can get a cup o' coffee right there in the Saresii Pleasure Palace. I think they serve that in the lobby."

She thanked him as he pointed her into the right direction and then he said, "Are you alright ma'am? You ain't looking very pert."

Luna, who was already moving towards the Hotel, coughed and said, "It's the dust. I'm alright."

The Saresii Pleasure Palace was a two storey tall building made mostly of local rock, mortar and Duro Crete with a large illuminated sign spelling out the name of the business, right next to the Space Bus Company. Both businesses shared a plastic roof used mostly to provide shadow and relief from the glaring white light of the local sun. A nice looking girl, standing next to a United Stars Army Captain, watched the cloaked woman approach. The girl shaded her own eyes with her hand and then smiled and said, "Why, if it isn't Luna Lodyn," then stepped down from the raised sidewalk to greet the Thauran woman.

Luna recognized the girl saying, "Nancy!" then belatedly noticed the Army Officer who also stepped closer to meet her, "How are you Captain Whiterspoon?"

Before the Officer had time to respond, his pretty young wife took Luna's hands, "Lady Luna what are you doing here, so far from Royal?"

The blue skinned lady said, "I am joining Ronald at Benton's Colony. He is there with his troops."

The Captain said, "Ronald is much nearer than that Lady Luna. He's been ordered to Cobalt Springs with his wing of Apaches."

Nancy smiled and said, "You be with your husband soon then, that's the very next stop of the Bus."

An immaculately dressed man, with the slightest blue complexion to his skin, passed them as he left the Hotel and bowed in the stylized old Thauran way.

Luna Lodyn, who was a genuine Thauran baroness smiled openly as she heard her husband was close and Lucy took her by the arm and the two women and the Army Captain walked through the air curtain inside the air conditioned lobby of the hotel.

Luna looked thankfully at a gurgling little water fountain and took a few deep breaths, "I never thought a place could be so dry!"

Lucy pointed at a little device right above her cleavage that at first looked like a piece of jewelry, "If you live here you need one of these little misters. It sprays a fine mist of water every time I take a breath and keeps a small force field before my face against the dust. They sell them at Silver-hawks Emporium."

The Army captain said, "She won't need one at Cobalt Springs. There isn't a dry spot on that world, good for the lungs they say." Then he gestured towards a table and chairs beside the windows, "Why don't you two lovelies sit here, while I get us some service. I think they do have Saresii tea."

The Thauran ladies sat down in a graceful manner gathering cloak and skirt with a much practiced move. Lucy took the seat across from Luna and said "How long has it been since your Ronald and my Hector were in the Academy, is it six years?"

Luna nodded, "Yes six years, our sixth wedding anniversary is coming up and I decided to surprise him."

Lucy nodded with a deep smile, "Aye, a surprise it will be. I can hardly believe seeing you here. What a shock these conditions must be for you, coming from Planet Royal and all."

Luna looked away from Lucy and out the window, "Much has changed since Federal Police arrested the old Emperor. Succession wars, open and clandestine, with many of the old families at each other's throats, make the Azure Worlds much less desirable places than they used to be."

The Captain returned with an S-10 Service robot in tow. The machine carried a tray with fine china cups and started setting the table. The Machine said, "Saresii Emporium is delighted to have a VIP guest of such stature and importance as a guest. Saresii tea was ordered for you and it is currently being prepared the traditional way. Please be patient as this preparation includes 3 minutes of infusing the flavors."

Luna thanked the machine while Lucy patted Luna's hand and said, "You must be exhausted from that long trip!"

Luna nodded, "It was quite bearable from Royal to Blue Moon as I booked passage on a Lux Cruiser but I found out that there are no other civilian travel providers, than space buses to these parts."

The Captain smiled at his wife, "This isn't Union Core for sure, but now that the Nul are about to become part of the big family, I reckon these parts will have Space Train connections soon. Lucy and I have claimed a Farm right here."

Lucy returned the smile, "Hector is currently stationed at Fort Three Corners but he won't extend after that but will take his leave and we both look forward to that."

Luna nodded her head to show she was listening but she still gazed outside and then pointed to the well dressed man who had greeted her outside, "Do you know who that Gentleman is?"

The Captain answered quietly while his wife looked indignant, "Hardly a gentleman, Lady Luna."

Nancy added with a wrinkled nose, "His name is Valthim I believe and he is not a local. They say he is a notorious gambler and a vicious bounty hunter."

Meanwhile, outside in the street from the office of the Space Bus company, three men and a woman in green coveralls appeared. The woman directing a robot dragging a sizeable hose over his metal shoulders unreeling it towards the fuel ports of the Space bus.

The men used an articulated cherry picker platform to reach the ISAH Pods in order to serve them. More hatches opened and freight and luggage was unloaded. Load handlers loaded crates and boxes with local produce on an extended conveyor belt that carried the outgoing freight inside the Leylands cargo hold.

The quiet character of the little settlement had changed into a busy organized chaos since the bus arrived. The two armed guards, with Enroe Security patches on their sleeves, re-appeared on top of the boarding ramp guiding a sturdy and heavy looking Ultronit reinforced box floating between them down the ramp.

Baldy had them sign his PDD and grinned, "It's all yours. I am sure glad it's off my hands."

Emerson who, thanks to his size, could easily look over the heads of everyone present, pointed at some kids and yelled, "Keep them kids away from the Forwards, they are still hot like hell!"

Baldy was social but he wanted to finish the official part of the business and then grab a steak and a drink at the hotel, take a bath and snooze a few hours before he had to take on the next leg of his trip. So he pushed himself through the now slowly dispersing crowd and into the office of CSBC Inc.

The Coreward Space Bus Company was a tiny corporation compared to the big Bus Lines like Gray lines (owned by SII) but they had offices on 54 planets, 23 moons and 18 stations in the region. Except for the company's headquarter on an Asteroid in the Blue Moon System the offices looked pretty much the same. A bleak passenger lobby with a few rows of Vari-Matic Chairs, Vent Matics with a very basic selection of snacks and drinks, three public GalNet terminals and Change-a-Scene advertisement posters on the walls. Only three of the seven posters still changed their images.

There was a chest high counter and behind it the employee area.

Baldy pushed his employee ID badge across a reader eye, released the counter barrier and went straight for a big chrome coffee machine that produced occasional puffs of steam and was a true antique and the pride possession of this office. It produced, after one had completed a series of manual steps, a dark wonderful aromatic liquid called Espresso.

The local manager, a heavy set Pan Saran named Augustus, waited till Baldy had his coffee and said, "How was the trip?"

"Well … Sir, we had a whole bunch of Non Union signals on our long range sensors about four lights out of Charlie's and from the size of them I think it was a Dai Clan."

"Coming this way?"

"Hard to tell, they were on the very horizon of our scanners and I was glad it stayed that way."

The Manager nodded and said, "I sure hope there won't be any Dai trouble around these parts in addition to what is going on. Oh and before you go and have lunch, go to the Ranger Office. You'll get a Federal escort this time flying along to Benton's."

Baldy sighed and said, "Mail Run again?"

The Manager shrugged his shoulders, "We are a Space Bus company and get federal subsidies and that also means we've got to carry the mail if they need us."

Baldy sighed again, then emptied the cup of espresso and made his way to the Union Rangers Office.

The Union Ranger's Office was in a one-storey converted shipping container, the front side blended with a facade of local rock masonry and a sign in the Window read, "United Stars Ranger Service".

Baldy was in a hurry to get to his food so he almost stormed into the small office. The local Union Ranger sat behind a worn metal desk with several PDD devices littering its surface. Wilcox, a human ranger, had his feet on propped up on the edge of the desk. Two Union deputy rangers were also present.

Baldy tipped his hand to his brow and said to the Deputies, "Hello, Mick. Howdy, Frank," and then he said to the Ranger, "Well, Mr. Wilcox, I'm looking for my Federal Escort. Is he here?"

The Ranger said, "Oh right, you're running Mail this week. No sorry your Escort is out trying to catch Hudson's Kid."

Wilcox touched a sensor and a wanted poster flickered into existence above the desk, showing the image of a handsome looking human.

Baldy looked at it and said, "But that's Hawk. I thought he was in the pen?"

Wilcox nodded, "He was."

Baldy grinned broadly, "Well good for him. I knew the Pen couldn't hold him for long."

One of the federal deputies, who had been standing by the window until then, pushed himself off the sill and moved closer to the projection. "He's a wild one alright and my guess is he's aiming to get even with the Carpenter brothers."

The other deputy, still sitting in a chair reading something on a PDD looked up, "It was their testimony that sent him to the penitentiary."

Baldy shrugged, "Hawk is a nice boy really and all I can say is that he better keep away from Luke Carpenter. Gosh, Luke ran every friend of the Hudson's out of Benton's and most folks that know what really happened."

Baldy halfway turned to go and finally have his lunch and rest and then said, "Just last trip, I saw him hit a miner with that wicked Pick ax he carries everywhere. Laid him open like a butchered Nul."

Wilcox, who had been looking very comfortable until then, dropped his legs to the floor, "You saw Luke Carpenter in Benton's?"

Baldy shoving his ham fists into his coverall pockets and nodded, "Yes sirree."

Wilcox made a thoughtful face and then got up, taking a TKU rifle off a gun rack nearby. The two federal deputies and Baldy looked at him curiously.

Wilcox was almost at the door before he turned, "You two take care of the office for a week or so. I am going to Benton's colony with Baldy."

Then to Baldy, "You got your Federal escort."

Baldy, following the Ranger out the door, mumbled, "Oh paint me an Ult, when will I learn to keep my big mouth shut."

The two armed guards, with the heavy Ultronit box floating between them, had reached the office of DeNoir Mining. The only purpose built structure made of dark gray Duro-Crete, aluminum and large glass windows. A real project a sign proclaimed this to be the regional office of DeNoir Mining – Manganese harvesting division, Rigo Colony.

The automatic doors admitted the two men and a pretty Saran girl, in a short skirt suit and beautiful hair, greeted them, "Mr. Sprewell is expecting you."

The guards smiled at her as they went past and into the office of the Branch Manager.

In a plush office, the most luxurious room on the entire planet, an important looking man dressed in an expensive Archa Silk business suit stood behind his desk. He was of Saresii-Venusian-Aryan descent, tall almost white blonde and a little overweight. Instead of greeting the men he said, "You took your sweet time getting here! The Bus landed almost 23 minutes ago."

Neither of the guards responded directly to the comment, instead placing the box before the man on the floor. With the ArtiGrav lifters now turned off, it would have taken a Saturnian to lift it. One of the guards said, "25 Million Credits in Cash transfer boxes as ordered."

Sprewell had to move around the desk to sign the Delivery confirmation the Guard was holding. He said, "Ever since we've done business with the Nul, we've need cash on hand. Having them join so they can hold accounts will make things much easier."

The Guard checked the signature and the CITI data and then said, "The fact we are doing business with the Nul who were our enemies until very recently is still amazing to me."

The other Agent opened the box with a special security key and started putting the small black cubes onto the Branch manager's desk.

While Cash Strips, Cred Strips and Credit Chips were connected to a bank account and did not carry the actual money. Credit Boxes did carry the actual value and allowed the direct, and if necessary anonymous, transfer of funds. Credit Boxes were the equivalent of cash. The ability to dispense and transfer cash without a bank or other entity having any influence or ability to control was deemed essential for the freedoms of Union Citizens, however due to that fact, they presented a potential danger and all these security measures were needed, especially for such a substantial amount.

The two security guards watched as the Branch manager put them into a wall safe and then took the now empty shipping box with them, without exchanging another word with the unpleasant, important acting man.

On the main street of Rigo, a group of stern faced women, three humans, two Saran, a Takkian and three Pan Saran, marched in almost military order behind a local Policeman who escorted a young woman in a very tight pink dress towards the space bus.

The young woman pulled a small suit case behind her. Her chin was held high and yet anyone who chose to look closer would have seen she was close to tears. This strange procession of a policeman escorting the young woman, and the members of the Rigo Colony Beautification Committee right behind them, was stopped by an outcry and a portly man stumbling out from a door right before them.

The man appeared somewhat unsteady on his feet. He carried an old Union Fleet Overcoat over his left arm and holding a worn small case in his left hand.

The man, unaware that he just stopped the local police enforcing a new local ordinance, yelled into the open door, "Now my dear lady..."

In the open door a hard faced woman appeared and yelled at the man, "Don't you 'dear lady' me, you old deadbeat! I'm keeping your things because you ain't paid your rent."

The unsteady intoxicated man balanced himself carefully, and lifted his hand jovially to the angry woman, "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships..." he burped and then continued, "...And burned the topless towers of Ilium?" In a comical gesture he blew the woman a kiss. "Farewell then, fair Helen."

The young woman, still standing by the policeman, hurried forward and said to the man, "Doctor Boone, can they make me leave the planet and force me to go somewhere else?"

The policeman came forward and caught the girl's arm. His voice was plaintive, "Now, Daphne don't go make any fuss. You violated the new ordinance and I've got to enforce it."

The women of the Rigo Colony Beautification Committee moved closer and Mrs. Sprewell, their leader, pointed her finger at the man, "You might as well get him on the bus too, Officer. She is a whore and he is a no good drunkard. We're getting a Union Med Station and don't need him anymore."

The Policeman now actually pulled on the girls arm. She yelped in pain and the man she called Doctor Boone said, "I might be a drunkard now, but I am still a Union Citizen and I will put you on report, Mister Officer. They can't simply make up ordinances on the go."

The policeman said, "I am afraid they can. Local laws and all that. Now Doc Boone you heard them. I suggest you get on that Bus as well."

The young woman was now almost crying, "Don't I have rights?"

Doc Boone offered her his arm and said, after she took it, "We are victims of prejudice and violation of Union rights. We'll find no justice here, but there is a district court in Benton's. We will get justice there."

To the Policeman he said, "I'll see Ms. Storm to the bus so there is no further need for your rudeness and manhandling of a young woman."

The Policeman agreed with a nod, "Alright Doc. But you and her will be better off on the bus."

"Not even the promise of untold riches would keep me here. We have an appointment with a Union advocate."

The Policeman waved angrily, "Just shut up and leave. You're drunk."

Doc Boone pointed at his wrist PDD, "Perhaps but not drunk enough to forget to collect evidence."

The Cop wasn't so self assured anymore, "Go wait in the Hotel for the Bus to leave. I'll get your tickets."

Without giving the Policeman another reply, Doc Boone and Daphne walked across the street and entered the Hotel.

Doc Boone left his coat and bag on a chair and said to the young woman, "Just wait here while I say farewell to my friend the bartender."

She gave him a sad, thankful and defeated smile, and sat down while he went over to the bar.

As he approached the bar, he noticed the barkeeper in conversation with another passenger that had arrived with the bus earlier. There was something gloomy and parsonical about that man's appearance.

Doc Boone leaned against the bar a few meters away, the barkeeper, with a frown, interrupted his conversation and stared at the Doc.

Doc Boone smiled and said, "Jerry."

"Yes Doc?"

"In the past, I will admit, as one man to another, that economically I haven't been of much value to you. But..." Boone lowered his voice adding, "...you don't suppose you could... ahem... put one on credit?"

The Bartender rolled his eyes and shook his head, "If talk was money, Doc, you'd be the best customer I've got."

"I'm leaving with the bus, Jerry."

"Honest?"

"Yes, my dear Jerry, and I thought you might, in memory of our many happy..."

The barkeep sighed and keyed a drink order into the Serv-Matic and pushed a glass filled with a golden liquid in front of the doctor."All right, Doc, just this one."

"Thank you, Jerry."

Doc Boone took the glass and turned it as he regarded the liquor with fond anticipation.

Jerry the barkeep, leaning on the bar, used his chin to point at the man he had talked to before, "Here's another fellow going with you on the bus, Doc. He came all the way from the Core, some place called Erth or something."

The man, hearing this, turned and said, "Alfons Peacock is my name Sirs and I am from Earth, not Erth."

Doc Boone lifted his glass to Peacock but his attention was on the glass rather than on the stranger, "To your health Reverend."

The Earther corrected again, "I am not a clergyman. My name is Peacock."

Jerry laughed, "He is a salesman for Thompson's Bar Supplies. He sells Liquor."

Doc Boone coughed out his drink and set down his glass, "What?"

Peacock still stood at the end of the bar with Doc Boone and the Bartender looking towards him, "Not just liquor. Thompsons offers a wide range of beers and non alcoholic choices."

The Barkeeper refilled the glass of Doc Boon, "They can get that over at Silver-hawks', the people coming here want the hard stuff."

Peacock pulled a sample bottle from his case, "This is genuine Old Overholt from Earth."

Doc Boone edged closer, uninvited, took the small bottle and emptied most of it then smacked his lips, "Mr. Hancock this good Rye."

"No, no it's Peacock. My name is Peacock Sir."

"You don't need to tell me, sir. A familiar name, an honored name! I never forget the face of a friend."

Six hours had passed since the bus had landed. All freight and luggage was stowed, engines serviced and fuel topped up. Baldy was walking up the forward ramp, wearing fresh coveralls. Wilcox, holding the TKU waited for him next to the flight deck air lock, "Ready?"

"Almost."

The passengers had already lined up and Emerson was standing by the main ramp, ready to commence boarding.

The Pan Saran Manager of the Space Bus activated the PA system and his amplified voice called, "All aboard for Cobalt Springs, Bumblebee, Shallow and Benton's Colony. Final call, departure in 10 minutes. Boarding will begin now. Please hold your boarding passes ready."

The call could be heard in the offices of DeNoir. Sprewell stood by the window and watched the passengers board as the automatic door opened and Agatha Sprewell came in, "Henry, it is not acceptable that this dreadful space bus keeps landing in the street. I need 5000 Credits to clean our beautiful tree!"

He reached into his pocket, pulled his credit strip and transferred the credits into hers.

She paid no attention and said, "Tomorrow you're going to go over there and stop that. What good is it if you are the Mayor and can't make them obey?"

"Yes Dear, I will do that first thing in the morning."

"I have the ladies of the committee over so don't expect any dinner tonight. Go and find something in town." Without even waiting for a response she stormed out.

Mr. Sprewell stared at the door for a few moments before his face hardened in decision. He turned, opened the safe and piled the Credit boxes into a brief-case.

Out by the bus, Nancy and her husband accompanied Lady Luna to the bus. Doc Boone and Daphne Storm were already boarding under the watchful eye of the local policeman.

From the Hotel, Mr. Peacock hurried closer, pulling his big sample case behind him.

Inside the Dust Guzzler, at a corner table, sat Valthim playing cards with three others. He gave the Garbini a smile, "They should have never taught Garbini how to play poker, your kind has a hell of a poker face."

A Klack who held his cards close to his almond shaped eyes agreed, "That and the fact that bluffing is a national past-time and part of their mating ritual, they are genetically programmed poker players."

The Garbini snickered, "You humans invented a game where bluffing is part of the strategy, besides one can bluff only so much. With this hand you dealt me, I need a miracle not a bluff."

The fourth player was human and he took a sip from his drink, "So are you in, tree-hanger or do you fold?"

The Garbini manipulated his controls and a taller stack of holographic chips appeared in the middle of the table, "I'm in Mr Befford, before I admit defeat I hope your hand is even worse than mine."

The Klack noticed the pale Thauran staring out the window. The Bus announcement had been made and he said, "Mr Valthim you seem suddenly distracted, are you in?"

Valthim watched as Lady Luna boarded the bus and he said, "Like a flower in the desert."

Befford shook his head, "What are you doing Mr Valthim, talking to yourself?"

Valthim raised his bet while still staring out the window, now seeing Lady Luna appear behind one of the buses larger panorama view ports near the front. He responded, "You would not understand Befford; it is a Thauran matter."

Befford shrugged, "Well this is too rich for me," and folded.

The Klack said, "Is it about the recent Thauran troubles?"

Valthim sighed, "Old families, old traditions and ancient troubles my six limbed friend," then smiled coldly. His cultivated voice seemed to have a sad melancholic edge to it.

The space bus was almost ready to leave, passengers were all settled inside and Baldy was about to close the hatches, when Apache Fighters descended on green glowing ArtiGrav cushions. The menacing looking gunships of the Army landed before and behind the bus and more touched down on the Duro-Crete surface of the space port. It was a whole regimental wing. Their landing action was an impeccable demonstration of precision and military proficiency.

The lead unit was painted dark green and red. A yellow shield shaped insignia with crossed sabers and a horse's head on its fuselage identified it as part of the 42nd Space Cavalry Unit out of Fort Three Corners.

Baldy waited, suspecting nothing good, and watched as the Canopy opened and a flight-suited man got up and removed his helmet. Baldy and many of the onlookers recognized Lt. Mentar. The Lieutenant climbed out with a few agile steps and jumped, with his suit augmented muscles, right onto the landing ramp before Baldy who saw he was holding out a dark green document box, "I am sorry for delaying your departure, but Captain Sickles asked if you would deliver this dispatch to the regional Command at Benton Colony. The GalNet network in the entire region is down.

Baldy took the document box, while Wilcox reappeared and asked, "GalNet is down?"

The Army lieutenant answered "Yes Sir, entire region. We are flying escort for you as far as Cobalt Springs. The Cavalry Wing there will take you on all the way to Shallow. From there you will have another escort into Benton. You are designated a Post ship and you must go, but you must warn your passengers that they travel at their own risk."

Baldy didn't like the sound of that and asked, "At their own risk? Escorts, GalNet down. What's the trouble Lieutenant?"

The Army Officer said. "Hazzzock is on the move."

Baldy threw his hands in the air, "Dai between here and Charles Port and Hazzzock and his wild bunch between here and Benton's. They don't pay me enough to make that trip. We'll stay right here till you and the fleet has cleared the situation."

The Army Officer nodded, "Of course, the Army has no authority over you, but your employer will of course lose the Federal Endorsements and subsidies for refusing the contractually agreed Post ship clause."

Baldy looked stung by those words and swallowed before saying, "This bus is going to Benton's."

The Lieutenant jumped back to his gun-ship and then climbed back into its pilot seat.

Baldy entered the Bus and addressed the passengers and repeated what the Army officer had said and then he added, "Me, Emerson and Wilcox are taking this bus through to Benton's Colony. We have Union Mail aboard and must make the trip. With or without passengers. So whoever wants to stay and wait things out is welcome to get a ticket for a later trip. Whenever that might be."

Lady Luna was first to speak, "I'd like to remain aboard. My husband is at Cobalt Springs."

Daphne Storm right after her looked out the view-port and said, "There are worse things than Shiss Raiders. I'd rather die than stay here another minute."

The salesman, Mr. Peacock, got up, "Under the circumstances I am sure my customers will understand when I wait things out right here."

Doc Boone smiled at him, "No one guarantees your safety here, you heard the Ship-master, there are Dai nearby and I'd rather face Shiss raiders than Dai Than taking a colony apart."

Peacock sighed, "Oh dear," then sat down, "It appears I'll remain aboard as well."

Baldy said, "Well since there aren't any other passengers. We are ready to leave."

Just a moment before Emerson wanted to retract the landing ramp and close the main hatch, Valthim waved, "Room for one more?"

Emerson stopped the ramp's closure and admitted the pale blue man selling him a ticket. Valthim carried only a small bag, but he had an expensive H&K Raketen Gewehr over his shoulder. To Emerson he said, "I am fully licensed."

The Quadiped raised his hands. "You would not have made it this far if I thought otherwise."

Henry Sprewell, out of breath clambered up the ramp, "Just got a Message from our Office, important business in Benton. Luxury accommodations please."

Emerson closed the hatch and touched a signal sensor to indicate to Baldy that the boarding was completed and the hatch closed. Only then did he turn to Sprewell, "Sorry sir we have only one general flight deck and no special accommodations. Ticket to Benton, that will be 200 Credits."

Up on the flight deck, Baldy checked his systems one more time and then flooded the ArtiGrav lifters with negative gravitons and the bus begun to rise. Out of pure mischief, and only to annoy that horrible Agatha Sprewell, he touched the levers of the main engines and tipped it just ever so lightly. The main engines roared to life and caused a little dust storm, completely engulfing the street and, of course, the oak tree.

Behind them twenty Apache Gunships rose into the air adding much substance to the dust cloud and Baldy giggled, "I think they'll need shovels and wheelbarrows this time."

Wilcox nodded but looked lost in thought.

Then the bus left the last traces of atmosphere behind and its two ISAH pods started to glow bright blue as they established the Isah field as the bus began to accelerate to Threshold speed.